The art movement that began in New York City in the 1940’s was hardly a unified effort. In fact, this group of artists, though historically classified as Abstract Expressionists, was averse to being labeled through one system of codification. Such an individualistic response was actually the defining artistic ethos of this group who more than painting in formal techniques drew inspiration from the rawness of their psyches.
The onslaught of crisis of brought upon by the Economic Crash, World War II and their aftermath are key to understanding the concerns of the Abstract Expressionists. These young artists, troubled by a newly formed understanding of mankind’s dark side and anxiously aware of human irrationality and vulnerability, wanted to express their ideas in a new art of meaning and substance.
What these artists did have in common were morally loaded themes, often heavyweight and tragic, on a grand scale. In contrast to the themes of social realism and regional life that characterized American art of previous decades, these artists valued, above all, individuality and spontaneous improvisation.
Jackson Pollock, in an interview with Selden Rodman in 1956, summarizes the essence of Abstract Expressionism, “I’m very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time. But when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge. We’re all influenced by Freud, I guess. I’ve been a Jungian for a long time…Painting is a state of being… Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”
Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were only some of the artists in post-World War II America who espoused a similar school of aesthetic. Artists who were said to be part of this movement in New York valued the inner workings of their psyche and developing their individual spontaneous techniques.