Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism was the first major new abstract style developed in the United States after the influx of refugee artists from Europe in the years just before World War II. The movement was centered in New York City but rapidly spread throughout the Western world. In part as a response to the chaos of the time in which they lived, Abstract Expressionist artists turned as had the Dadaists before them, against the use of reason. They tried to broaden their artistic processes to express what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious” by adopting the methods of Surrealist improvisation and using their collective minds as open channels through which the forces of the unconscious could make themselves visible.

The Abstract Expressionists saw themselves as leaders in the quest to find the path to the future. The New York artists viewed their art as a weapon in the struggle to maintain their humanity in the midst of the world’s increasing insanity.

To create, they turned inward. Their works had a look of rough spontaneity and exhibited a refreshing energy; their content was intended to be grasped intuitively by each viewer, in a state free from structured thinking. Abstract Expressionist artists believed their work could help to counter the forces of dislocation by reawakening in people a sense of interconnectedness with all living things. As the painter Robert Motherwall eloquently wrote:

“The emergence of abstract art is a sign that there are still men of feeling in the world …From their perspective, it is the social world that tends to appear irrational and absurd…Nothing as drastic as abstract art could have come into existence save as the consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience – intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic. If a painting does not make human contact, it is nothing. But the audience is also responsible. Through pictures our passions touch. Pictures are vehicles of passion, of all kinds and orders, not pretty luxuries like sports cars. In our society, the capacity to give and receive passion is limited. For this reason, the act of painting is deep human necessity, not the production of a hand-made commodity.” **

– all text excerpted from Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Volume II, Ninth Edition, New York : Hardcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991, p1032.
** Motherwell quote excerpted from Frank O’Hara, Robert Motherwell, New York : Museum of Modern Art, 1965, pp 45, 50.

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