From American Figurative Expressionism to Post-Minimalism (WW II-1960’s)


Over the past 10-15 years we have seen emerging a number of -ism movements, e.g. Bitterism (1998-present), Stuckism (1999-present), Thinkism  (2001-present), and Funism (ca. 2002-present) come to mind. In many ways these are all splinter groups in the Contemporary Art landscape. But what is Contemporary Art? Clearly it is Post-Modern, but since that is also poorly defined and understood we can’t use that as a definition. And we are not even certain that Post-Modernism is the same as Contemporary Art. Some say that Contemporary Art is defined by its period, where-as Post-Modernism is an “attitude” and style. Very helpful!

But even before this recent frenzy for -isms, we had American Figurative Expressionism (including a New York specific sub-culture) and Abstract Expressionism in the 1950’s, Minimalism in the 1960’s, Post-Minimalism in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Photorealism in the 1970’s, Neo-Expressionism in the 1980’s, Massurrealism and Maximalism in the 1990’s, and Classical Realism, Pseudo-Realism and Cynical Realism in the 2000’s. 

The idea here is just to look at the “-isms” in contemporary art, and zig-zag in an unconventional way through the last 60 years of avant-garde art.

So here we go with a whistle stop tour of the -isms in contemporary art!

American Figurative Expressionism was a movement in the 1930’s and 1940’s born out of the earlier European Expressionist movements such as Le Fauves, Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter. If we think of Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh we can perhaps understand that desire to capture and convey intense feeling that is the key to all forms of expressionism. Some experts have noted that the desire to extend one form or another of expressionism to include, or even focus on, the human form has meant that Figurative Expressionism has outlasted other movements, e.g. Minimal and Pop-, Op-Art. In the early days key artists were Max Weber (1881-1961), Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Milton Avery (1885-1965) and Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978). Below we have on the left Portrait of a German Officer (1914) by Marsden Hartley, and on the right we have a Matisse-like Autumn (1944) by Milton Avery (representational, colourful, bold and setting aside the illusion of depth).

It would appear that in parallel with the Abstract Expressionism of the post-WW II other artists returned to the human figure and the image of mankind injecting Figurative Expressionism with new gusto, this group was often called New York Figurative Expressionists. Some artists were inspired by the old masters and historic events, other focussed on representational portraiture, and other still on allegoric or mythical themes. I personally found much of this work rather bland, but I quite liked Balcomb Greene (1904-1990) with his Angelina (1984) and Maternal Group panels paintings of Irving Kriesberg (1919-2009).

As Abstract Expressionism declined in the late 1950’s there was a resurgence in American Figurative Expressionism. In addition to New York, Boston also had its figurative expressionist group, and whilst less cohesive as a group figurative expressionists were also at work in Chicago, San Francisco, and The Bay area. The real value of this work may be in its defense of figurative forms of expression, and its desire to engage with the public (after the cult of bewilderment promoted by abstract expressionism).

Abstract Expressionism is a specific American post-WW II movement (started out as a “New York School”) with an emphasis on colour and abstract forms, and on vigorous, spontaneous, automatic or subconscious creation. Many of its founders lived through the depression of the 1930’s and were strongly influenced by the German Expressionism and the Futurism movements as well as the European Surrealists living in exile in the US. It is an important movement in that it represented possibly the first truly American avant-garde movement, monumental in scale and expressive of personal experiences and individual freedom.

Perhaps Kandinsky (1866-1944) set the scene for abstract expressionism with his (on the left) Composition IV (1911), and (on the right) Unbroken Line (1923). It is also said that Max Ernst first developed the techniques used (e.g. collage).

According to the Wikipedia article the roots of abstract expressionism were established by Armenian American Arshile Gorky (ca.1904-1948), the Dutch American Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956).

Gorky was very much influenced by the death of his mother in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. He trained in the US as a artist and was influenced by Cézanne, Cubism and Surrealism. The painting on the left is a highly personal one The Artist and His Mother (1926-1936), and on the right we have Virginia Landscape (1943) one of his large abstract landscapes. His studio barn burnt down, he was treated fro cancer, he broke his neck and paralysed his painting arm in a car accident, and his wife left him taking their children. He hung himself in 1948. 

Willem de Kooning was formally trained and taught art in the US. Initially in 1946 he painted with black and white household enamels because they were cheap, e.g. on the left Painting (1948). At the time he felt that even abstract shapes must have some sense of likeness, human figures, inanimate objects,... On the right is his Woman III (1953) which was originally held in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, but because it presents the female form it was quietly traded for a 16th C Persian manuscript, and later sold on for $137.5 million in 2006.

Jackson Pollock was perhaps the most symbolic of the American abstract expressionists, and he is best known for his style of drip painting on canvases laid out on the floor (he was know as “Jack the Dripper”). His technique of pouring and dripping paint is seen as at the origin of action painting. Since his death experts have spent their time reading much into his work: Mexican muralists, Surrealists, fractals, Chaos Theory,.. but at the end of the day it just looks like a lot of paint dripped on a canvas. You decide! On the left we have Number 8 (1949), and on the right we have Untitled (1948-49). I suppose the advantage of these works is that you can read almost anything into them: on the left I see a satellite image of London on a sunny day, and on the right a bull flight in Spain!

Experts tell us that Pollock liberated the artist from the easel and in doing so permitted artists to expand the way they could create, e.g. use industrial materials, stain, drip, throw, use imagery and non-imagery subjects. What is clear is that abstract expressionism and Pollock influenced future generations of artists and indirectly the movements they created.

The last of my abstract expressionists is the Russian-american Mark Rothko (1903-1970). He is now known for his exploration of colour (“We start with colour”) cumulating in so-called “multiforms” of rectangular fields of colour and light. Experts claim that in these paintings there a purity of aesthetic and possibly even a spiritual experience. Oddly enough in later years he considered the Pop-Art movement “charlatans and young opportunists”. Below left we have No. 8 (1952), in the middle the more complex Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red (1949), and the right Possibilities 1 (1947-48).

I remember reading one commentator that asked if Rothko was a painter or a “painter decorator”? I know what they mean, but everyone is free to make up their own mind.

Check out this interesting video on abstract expressionism

Clearly abstract expressionism did shatter the “classical” notions of what was considered art, what counted was originality above all else (always within a non-figurative context). If there was genius, then it was in the intentions of the artists, their philosophy, and above all their courage.

Minimalism is another post-WW II movement strongly linked to the American visual arts of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It had an impact on art, architecture, design, literature, theatre and music, and some experts see it originating as a reaction against abstract expressionism (in wanting to strip everything back to its essentials and actually avoid self-expressionism). At least in terms of architecture and design it was inspired by both Japanese traditional design and the work of De Stijl artists, others suggest that it emerged from the bauhaus movement. Experts also point to the influence of Russian Constructivism and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (use of modular fabrication and industrial materials with the intent to avoid the appearance of fine art and even the hand of the artist). Overall, minimalism is the use of a minimum number of colours, shapes, lines and textures. Some have argued that by making the style austere and over intellectual minimalists have created a kind of language of domination or power. 

Minimalism is above all, at least in my mind, a major architectural and design movement. In many ways its importance lies in the way it responded to the “over decorated” styles of the past. Today we can see its influence all around us: simplicity, white elements, cold lighting, use of industrial materials, large spaces with few objects and furniture, no corniches or alcoves, few curves and lots of right-angles, lots of natural light, air and views of the sky and gardens,... In this many experts see a Japanese influence, and even Zen concepts of simplicity. Tadao Ando (born 1941) is often mentioned as a minimalist in that he designs complex spatial structures that look simple, or even have the “beauty of simplicity”. Below left we can see the Fondazione Langen in Neuss, Germany (2004), and the right the international conference center Awaji Yumebutai on Awaji island, Japan (2000).

The Wikipedia article on minimalist architects mentions the motto “Less is more” of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, where every element and detail is designed to serve multiple visual and functional purposes all set with an impression of extreme simplicity (others have simply classed him as an avant-garde architect). I think that his use of simple rectilinear and planar forms, clean lines, pure colours, the desire to integrate interior and external spaces, and the eradication of the superficial and unnecessary  certainly marks him as a minimalist. Below we have two of his most famous buildings, on the left the Seagram Building in Chicago (1958) and on the right the Neue National Gallery in Berlin (1968)

Before moving on let us have a look at some recent examples of minimalist architecture. Here are just 10 active architects: J Mayer H Architects, Zecc Architects, Selldorf Architects, Scott Tallon Walker Architects, Luigi Rosselli, MacGabhann Architects, Hariri & Hariri, Chen & Suchart Studio, Wilkinson King Architects, and Foster + Partners. Let’s just have a quick look at some of their work. The first image below on the left is of an Australian house in Mosman, New South Wales and was designed by Luigi Rossetti. On the right we have a house in Co. Donegal, Ireland, designed by MacGabhann Architects. Below that on the left we have a house in New York designed by Hariri & Hariri, and the last on the right is a house in Kamakura, Japan, designed by Forster + Partners.

Turning to design, the minimalist movement has had, and is still having, a major impact on our day-to-day lives. It has influenced computer user devices and interfaces, hardware, cars (e.g. Colin Chapman), graphics, photography, furniture, kitchens, theatre (e.g. Samuel Beckett),  fashion (some suggest that Coco Chanel was the first minimalist fashion designer), films (e.g. Robert Bresson), music (e.g. Philip Glass, Brian Eno or the 1960‘s group Velvet Underground), games (e.g. WarioWare), ... in fact almost every facet of our visual landscape. The iPhone, the clean Web page, the slick “white space” brochure, the sleek sofa,... all are minimalist products.

Some concepts that are associated with minimalism are “doing more with less”, “the rise of simplicity”, “life after less”, but at end of the day perhaps this is all about making us feel less inadequate in front of a deluge of information and technology, or in front of unabated and accelerating progress. Does all this divest our world of sentiment and meaning, or does it provide more space for our imagination?

If we have to pick a designer that has captured the minimalist style, then perhaps the German Dieter Rams (born 1932) with his Braun products fits the bill best. 

But here a few more examples of cool minimalist designs. Starting from top left: a poster by Noma Bar, a table by Peter Petersen, a Webpage for Janis, a chair from Evinco, the Nulla bike, and ceramics from Stine Jespersen.

Let us now move on to look at minimalist art. Minimalist art is firmly rooted in the 1960’s but in many ways started with geometric abstractionists such as Italian Frank Stella (born 1936), Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). During the mid-60’s Stella started to work on printmaking, and increasingly canvases became shaped and took on sculptural qualities, e.g. on the left we have the “interlace” Madinat as-Salan I (1970) which is almost architectural in scale (measuring about 260 cm x 750 cm). On the right we have another monumental work (242 cm x 540 cm) of chromatic abstraction (similar to Mark Rothko where the colour becomes the subject itself) painted by Barnett Newman and called Vir Heroicus Sublimis or “man, heroic, and sublime” (1950-51).

Donald Judd (1928-1994) is considered by many to be the theoretician of minimalism with his 1964 essay “Specific Objects”. During that time he was making “objects” with industrial processes believing that the result itself created art, irrespective of the artist-creator. Below on the left we have eight modular units Untitled (1966-68). Another major minimalist theorist is Robert Morris (born 1931), and below on the right we see his L-beams (1965). My understanding of their view was that paintings try to create an illusion of space whereas actual space is far more powerful. However they also refuses to see their work as sculpture, it was a wholeness that came from a repetition of parts and the shape of the objects. Making the pieces using an industrial process eliminated the hand of the artist. For them the only relationship is what is created by the repetition, there should be no implied presence of the human figure and thus the meaning must come from outside the objects themselves. finally the objects themselves must not have interiors or private spaces, e.g. no insides and therefore no outsides. 

Check out this site from more on minimalism: Minimalissimo in design, art, graphics fashion and music. And the videos What is minimal art? What is Minimalism?

Post-Minimalism was defined in 1971 as a artistic trend trying to go beyond the aesthetic of minimalism, e.g. against the Minimalists insistence on closed, geometric forms. Richard Serra (born 1939) is a notable post-minimalist and process artist. He looks to create objects by hurling molten lead at a wall, and rolling material into dense logs. He is best know for large-scale rolls and sheets of metal, e.g. below on the left The Matter of Time (2005). Another well-known Post-Minimalist is the English artist Richard Long (born 1945). His approach is to displace natural materials (stone, driftwood, mud,...) either in-situ or in a gallery, e.g. below on the right we have White Water Line (1990).  

I see minimalist as a major force in architecture and design, but minimalist and post-minimalist art often leaves me cold.