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Sunday, October 15, 2017

1950s Art

My own recollection would probably read: "The Thrifty Fifties."
Several months ago (actually, more like several years ago) I began a series exploring in some depth the art of the 20th-Century. I arbitrarily started with the art of the 1960s. From there I've covered the art of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. I should logically move on to the art of the 2000s, but not only does that seem like an awkward title, it's actually the first decade of the 21st-century. I would also deem it much too recent from which to gain much of an historical perspective. So instead, I'm going backward from where I began to the art of the 1950s--an era I can barely remember, and thus one in which what I know about its art comes mostly second-hand.  

Those artists predicting life in the future were mostly optimists. With technology and science, all things seemed possibly.
Chronologically, decades are neat and tidy demarcations of history. However history (including art history) seldom cooperates with such artificial timespans. For example, Abstract Expressionism reached it's peak in the 1950s but didn't really pass from the picture until sometime in the mid-1960s. To add to this complexity we find that during the 20th-century art began to creep into virtually every aspect of modern life from advertising, to entertainment, fine art, not-so-fine art, to precincts in which its validity as art of any type was highly in doubt. For the sake of lending some semblance of order to the chaos inherent in art history, I'll divide the art of the 1950s into three categories--fine art, printed art, entertainment art, and dubious art.

Pollock's art evolved during the early 1950s. Search (just above) was his final painting before his death.
In the area of Modern Art (contemporary was the new buzzword), three names dominated during the 1950s. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and totally in a realm of his own, Norman Rockwell. Jackson Pollock (above) only saw the early years of the decade. He died in a drunken car crash on August 11, 1956. Despite his truncated career, Pollock's "action paintings" stand well above all other from the Abstract Expressionist era.

de Kooning, more than any other artist of the era, let the Abstract Expressionism movement to its protracted death at the dawn of the 1960s.
If Jackson had a rival as the founder and major proponent of the New York School, it would be in the person of Willem de Kooning (above). In his work we can see something of a history of the artist's development as well as that of the entire movement as it served as a climactic exclamation mark leading to the Minimalist "curtain call" the following decade.

The favorite artist of the Saturday Evening Post and most of the rest of America as well during the halcyon days of the 1950s.
For myself and most other people living blissfully happy lives during the fifties, only one living artist was a household name--Norman Rockwell. Most people at the time were unaware of Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Frankenthaler, Motherwell, Gottlieb or any of the others making names for themselves on the New York art scene. Both as an artist, and visual storyteller, Rockwell might well be considered the heart and soul of the entire decade.

The "good ole days" weren't always good, but they were the best American had known in decades.
It was a decade in which a virtual flood of new products, inventions, and easy-living technologies hit the post-war market of the most prosperous nation in the world. It was the decade we were inundated with plastics, diet sodas, television, tail fins, V-8 engines, transistor radios, 707s, dishwashers, backyard grills, Barbie Dolls, Sputniks, and all manner of new food products from the overstocked corner grocery stores. Just as important, however, is the fact that the 1950s were the days before manned space travel, color TV, Pop Art, Pop Tarts, recreational drugs, the Beatles, the pill, men on the moon, and Vietnam.

Racism Incident at Little Rock, 1957, Domingo Ulloa
Before we loose our minds wallowing in nostalgia, it's important to remember that this era of postwar prosperity was not distributed evenly among those living at the time. While the middle-class likely never had it so good, and the upper classes basked in the gaudy luxuries of the day, many others struggled. Principally they were blacks, Latinos, Native-Americans, and those in rural areas still bearing the lingering effect of the Great Depression. The 1950s were also the years marked by the onset of the civil rights movement, Brown vs. the Board of Education, Little Rock, Jim Crow, and a host of other harbingers of things to come a few years later. Domingo Ulloa's Racism Incident at Little Rock (above) deftly captures the fear and hatred that blacks felt and endured as they waited for their equal rights, then nearly a century late in coming.

Propaganda art--artist were not immune to the demagoguery and fear mongering associated with the era. In fact, they were sometimes a willing party to it.
Art had a part in the unsettled political and social upheavals of the time--McCarthyism, "I Like Ike," war in Korea, "Ban the Bomb," and the first seeds of yet another war, this one in Vietnam. All this played upon the minds and efforts of artists to cope with a fundamental need to make their thoughts and opinions known despite a society far more interested in what was playing Saturday night on TV or at the local Drive-in Theater. It was prime time for James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

By today's standards, movies of the 1950s could almost be termed "wholesome."

The Drive-in Theater, Dan Hatala.

Gil Elvgren, pin-up with photo source.


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