Abstract ExpressionismThe work of Paul CÚzanne, and his landscapes, was the spark that lit Picasso's match - which ignited Cubism. Though Cubism was never completely abstract in the non-representational sense, it, in turn, was the torch sitting off the Abstract Expressionist explosion marking the second third of the twentieth century. When we think of Abstract Expressionism, typically we think in terms of the New York School of the forties and fifties, and certainly, this is there the movement matured and came into its own. But its seeds go back a generation before to the work of artists such as Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, Wasily Kandinsky, and ultimately Kasimir Malevich. These were the planters. Hoffman, Jackson, and de Kooning were merely gardeners, nurturing, and reaping the rewards of what were basically European seeds transplanted to America.
Each of the "planters" brought their own "DNA" to the movement. Miro's genes were symbolic with a trace of surrealism. Mondrian's roots were pure Cubism. Kandinsky's contribution was quite literally an epiphany of colour. It is said that he discovered the "inherent expressive properties of colour" divorced from the "real" world one evening after a long day of painting. He was struck by an image of "extraordinary beauty, full of inner radiance" which had eluded him in his struggle to unleash it in his landscape painting. This "vision" turned out to be one of his earlier paintings accidentally placed upside down, thus destroying its originally representational composition. From that moment on, colour began to take on an almost "religious" importance to Kandinsky.
On the very opposite side of the coin, the Russian painter, Kasimir Malevich implanted the Dada mentality of Eastern Europe within the Abstract Expressionist family tree. In a career tragically at odds with the turbulent political upheavals of Mother Russia in the Post-World War One era, Malevich's work aspired to a visual and compositional purity eschewing very nearly every single element of design known to man. In a 1918 painting entitled White on White, his basic off-white, off-balance square on a white square canvas contrived to stretch the very definition of painted art almost to the breaking point. Yet, his "less is more" theories injected an element of subtlety into Abstract Expressionism that was to influence the American branch of this organic art from Frankenthaler, Rothko, and Pollock to the so called "Minimalist" movement in the 1960's.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
14 February 1998