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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Beyond Abstract Expressionism

Helen Frankenthaler, removing the expressionism from Abstract Expressionism
It would come as no surprise to professionals and layman alike that artists are often misunderstood. In fact, many artists seem to thrive on this very fact. In some cases, one might even suspect they go out of their way to be misunderstood. Without a doubt, the group of artists that would seem to be most guilty of this would be the abstract expressionists. Often there is little in the way of representational subject matter to offer the viewer a clue as to what's going on, and in many cases, the artist strives to be deliberately obscure, insisting that the viewer "imagine" with him what the painting is all about. Actually however, there was one type of art that went even beyond this. It developed in response to Abstract Expressionism as well as in reaction to it. We're often tempted to think that Abstract Expressionism was the only thing happening on the modern art scene during the 1950s and 60s when the New York School held sway in the international art world. That wasn't quite the case. There was a small band of New York artists that sought to counter the extreme emotionalism they found in Abstract Expressionism, in effect, wishing to shear from it the expressionism in favor of they abstract. They were called the Colorfield and eventually Hardedge Colorfield painters.

Where, 1960, Morris Louis
Much of this movement was an outgrowth of the soak and stain methods of Helen Frankenthaler (top). Artists such as Morris Lewis (left), Barnett Newman (below), Ad Reinhardt (bottom, left), Elsworth Kelly (bottom, right), Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella began with her colors and, in effect, masculinized her art, giving their work hard edges, geometric shapes, and studied compositional arrangements which gradually evolved toward ever simpler designs until, by the late 60s, what they did became known as Minimalism, which was actually a much more descriptive term for the whole movement. If Abstract Expressionism had been obscure, Minimalism breathed such a rarefied air few besides artists could appreciate intellectually what its creators were striving to accomplish. While the Abstract Expressionists had been creating art for art's sake, the Minimalists had refined this trend to the far more esoteric, color for color's sake. The result was it left many artists and nearly all the general public blinking their eyes in astonishment.

Barnett Newman with his Onement VI, 1953
Part of the astonishment was disbelief, that art had ascended (or descended, depending upon your point of view) to such a level. The other element was the sheer, overpowering beauty these experiments fostered. Inasmuch as it was impossible to get involved emotionally in any subjective content (there simply was none) and very nearly as impossible to see much in the way of design or composition, the only thing left was to envelop one's self in the enormous blanket of color subtleties employed. Even here, artists such as Ad Reinhardt with his series of black paintings (gridded squares using subtle shades of black), or Joseph Albers with his concentric squares employing extremely subtle shades of a single color, didn't make the task of enjoying or understanding these works easy. Later artists such as Kelly, Noland, and Stella made it a little easier, allowing extremely simple compositional elements to vie with their color studies for viewer interest, but all in all, the entire movement far outstripped the Abstract Expressionists in the race to be the most misunderstood art of all time.
Red Abstract, 1952, Ad Reinhardt
Green Blue, 1967, Ellsworth Kelly.
Colorfield painting also had its sculptural

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