New Sensibilities in Art

The dawn of 19th century brought many changes to the Western society as a result of the Industrial revolution. The transformation from a more traditional agricultural-based society to a more open industrialized society affected not only the subject matter but technique of creating art. This change was propagated much more energetically after the Second World War when New York became the Mecca of attention instead of Paris.

In 1936, Robert Coates used the term Abstract Expressionism in the March issue of The New Yorker. The first public exhibition by the New York School of artists who later were identified as Abstract Expressionists was held in mid-1940’s. In the beginning, Abstract Expressionism did not describe any one style, but rather a general attitude. The painters who came to be called Abstract Expressionists shared a common approach, characterized by a spirit of revolt and belief in freedom of expression.

Abstract Expressionism has gone through many modes in the last 70 or so years. It had spurts of movements from Futurism to Fluxus within its arena. It has depicted variation in aesthetics of many European abstract schools such as Bauhaus and Synthetic Cubism. Overall, it described the aesthetic trend of American society that relied on freedom of expression and experimentation. The movement can broadly be divided into Action Painting, Color Field Painting and Hard-Edge Painting. One of the significant streams of Abstract Expressionism is ‘Action Painting.’ The term ‘Action Painting’ was used for the first time in 1952 to describe the works of painters such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. The psyche of the painter was the driving force for the meaning of these works. The canvas was a field where Painting could be instinctive and spontaneous.

Untitled, Franz Kline, 1958

Two other significant strains of Abstract Expressionism are the Color Field and Hard-Edge Painting. They represent two formal trends in American abstraction in the early 1960's.  Color Field works consist of large colored areas; neither signs nor forms existed for the eye to focus at a dominating area. Color was usually used without any perspective, influencing the viewer by its impressive size. Barnett Newman is one of the best painters of this style. The term Hard-Edge painting was coined in 1959 by art historian Jules Langsner to characterize the nonfigurative work of some Californian artists, showed in an exhibition called Four Abstract Classicists. Later, the term was facilitated by British critic Lawrence Alloway, who used it to describe geometric abstract works. These works typically depicted well-defined outlines, colorful shapes and the precision of their compositions.

Who is Afraid of Red, Yeloow and Blue, Barnett Newman

Abstract Expression (particularly the paintings of early period of the movement) in general and ‘action painting’ in particular were ‘painterly.’  The Swiss historian Heinrich Wolffin, used the word ‘painterly’ to describe the formal qualities of Baroque art. ‘Painterly ‘depicts blurred, broken and merging qualities of color and contour. The other two strains of Abstract Expressionism appear more linear in their pictorial representation; consist of flat silhouettes, less or no texture and well-defined contours.

Barouqe Art - The Union of Earth and Water, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618

This trend of Hard-Edge Painting facilitated interest in Pop Art. It  blurred the distinction between Fine and Graphic arts and many artists who were primarily graphic artists, like Andy Warhol and Lichenstein, came into the limelight in 60’s and 70’s. Despite being diverse, Pop Art, due to its mirror-like quality of depicting reality, never really achieved the freshness that color field painting or Hard-Edge painting offers to its viewers.

Cubist Still Life, Roy Lichtenstein, 1974

The current exhibition, Figures in the Field, at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, includes works dating from the 1960’s.  In this exhibition we can distinctly see the emergence and rise of ‘Color Field Painting’ and ‘Hard-Edge Painting,’ whereas ‘painterly’ effect of Abstract Expressionism is taking the back seat.   All the artists in this show seem to move away from the painterly abstractness to the linear openness of design. The  Jean Harlow Night, Black and Blue by Jules Olilski  has four semi-circular bands of color with precise contours, overlapping each other at some points but keeping some distance from each other at other points. They are placed on the horizontal plane of the picture. These color bands are creating a tension partly due to the shift in warm to cool colors, and partly due to the firm contours residing close to each other. Just Desserts by Monique Preto creates the sense of gravity by the same technique of overlapping shapes and firm contours. Two Widths of the Epsilon Ring by Carrie Gundersdorl and Tel Aviv by Gene Davis are somewhat painterly in their appearance but they keep the freshness and spontaneity of linear abstraction as their basic essence. In Two Widths of the Epsilon Ring,the vertical lines blurs into the silhouette background of the large canvas, loosing their firm contour, whereas in Tel Aviv, the color bands merge to make different values of color to create grades of depth. Judy Ledgerwood, in Driving into Delirium, has a painterly approach too, but by the vastness of its framing area and relatively subtle differences in the values, she manages a new expressiveness in this painting.  Bruce Marden’s 8 falls somewhere in between ‘painterly’ and Hard-Edge abstraction in its pictorial appearance. The broad, bleeding lines blur at their edges and at times merge into the linen surface.

We live in times when media are loosening their borders to bring new concepts of design and new approaches in creating art. This is the time when art keeps intact its freshness and abstraction despite being closer to life. This era provides a great opportunity. It is probably the best time to reevaluate the past trends and create new sensibilities.  These new sensibilities are the only means to move forward in time.

Imran Omer

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