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Abstract Expressionism has been considered by many art historians as an equivalent of Analytical Cubism in the middle of the twentieth century because ‘it appeared to illuminate new aesthetic problems and demanded new paradigms to solve them.’[1] Although some of the artists are framed within the School of New York, the fact is that in practice they did not form any uniform style movement, some of them painted with apparent spontaneity, others with certain self-limitation. However, in the first instance they reacted against the prevailing social realism and regional style during the Great Depression and were encouraged to abandon stylistic conventions of the past, focusing on the qualities of their particular medium. Later, after the impact of World War II, they developed a historical and public art, documenting, analyzing and striving to transfigure the experience of human collective as a result of the collapse of the war and depression.[2]

This essay firstly aims to compare the approaches of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko to the beginnings of Abstract Expressionism, the relationship between artistic practice and political, social and ideological circumstances which were latent during the Great Depression. Secondly, to contrast the evolution of their painting in the post-war period, when they adopted the abstraction as a new paradigm of practice and critical value.[3]

In the first place, although the first works of Pollock and Rothko were committed to socialist politics, artists abandoned early the social realist painting in the United States.[4] In relation with some works requested by the Federal Art Project, which reflect a type of art that functions as ‘an element of self-definition and insight in society,’[5] Rothko and Pollock were interested in aspects which go beyond the current social reality. The works The Omen of the Eagle (1942, National Gallery of Art, Washington) by Rothko and Male and Female (1942-43, Philadelphia Museum of Art) by Pollock distance from realism and begin the exploration of ritual and totemic issues. However, these works were not still within the framework of abstraction, but it possessed a more figurative character. For instance, it can be seen that Rothko’s work is composed of several overlapping rows, in which different elements are described, from heads or Greek columns to eagles or human feet. In the same way, Pollock’s painting, though less figurative than the previous example, shows two figures, male and female, that dominate the composition.

Psychoanalysis, particularly the psychologist Carl Jung’s theory, is another influence in Pollock and Rothko’s art. It is presented as an opportunity to discover, understand and work both in their unconscious and their art.[6] Jung believed in the existence of a common substrate for human beings of all times and places in the world, consisting of primitive symbols that a content of the psyche that is beyond reason is expressed, the ‘collective unconscious’.[7]

Both artists applied in the realization of their work surrealist techniques, particularly automatism. They were interested in the fields of irrational subconscious, where rest the prenatal memory, the survival of ancestral traditions and automatic and instinctive activity of the spirit.[8] Rothko’s work Geologic Reverie (1946, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) denotes influence by Joan Miró. Its schematic forms are embedded in a soft background; horizontal divisions remind horizons in the landscapes of Miró.[9] Likewise, Pasiphaë (1943, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) by Pollock introduces three figures, two of them standing and one horizontally, forming a complex field of enigmatic symbols through the practice of automatism, using his unconscious to arrange the composition.[10]

Although there are some aspects that bring the works of Pollock and Rothko closer at this stage of Abstract Expressionism, it can be argued some differences between them. For instance, the figure of Pablo Picasso, who was a great influence throughout the career of Jackson Pollock, more intensely in his beginnings. In Male and Female, it can be found clear references to the work by Picasso Two women in front of a window (1927, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston).[11] However, Rothko rejected the pictorial trend of Cubism for not expressing any deep philosophy and be merely aesthetic. He believed that the painting is a mode of philosophical thought and, as such, should formulate a ‘personal philosophy of painting’, not merely color and shape.[12]

In the second place, after World War II, the Abstract Expressionists rejected figurative art because they considered it incapable of reflect the emotional climate of the time.[13] The artists believed that the styles of representation of previous generations were not suitable in post-war America.[14] The works of Rothko and Pollock, belonging to a later stage, are paintings that have abandoned figuration and have been immersed in abstraction. Although Rothko did not consider himself as an abstract painter who is interested only in the relationship of color or form of the compositions,[15] his work developed into abstract forms that allowed him to project a more direct and immediate image for his themes. Rothko’s work Nº13, White, Red on Yellow (1958, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) has replaced the traditional narrative content and figurative imagery by three horizontal bars of different size and color that seem to float on the surface of the painting. Thus, Number 28 (1950, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), by Pollock shows traces of different colors belong to different layers arranged along the canvas in a very similar way.

There is a clear influence of the great Mexican muralists in both artists. In the early 30s, artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Orozco and Diego Rivera achieved great popularity[16]. Also, Thomas Hart Benton’s murals caused great effect on the two artists who adopted large formats for themselves to be placed inside the experience, to create a ‘state of intimacy’.[17] Pollock and Rothko’s paintings evolved from small formats to large canvas in which to become part of the work.

Often the titles have little or nothing to do with the box. The goal of both artists was that people appreciate the box itself, not that the title was a distraction. Nevertheless, there numbered boxes, boxes with titles, with number and title, and even works on different displays with different title.

However, although Pollock and Rothko felt the need for new more powerful styles, they responded to the new political situation with an extremely individualized signature style, expressing personal and social isolation.[18] Jackson Pollock was able to find satisfaction by externalizing his struggle, making the gesture of painting his own object. He abandoned the palette and easel and began to pour the paint across the canvas. The brush was used as a post, it did not touch the surface of the canvas. Thus, the marks on the canvas were released from any possible representational significance.[19] One of his works, Autumn Rhythm (1950, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), shows this new technique called Action Painting or Gestural Painting, where it can be appreciated a sense of movement and rhythm, and a sense of global compositional extension, with no central focus to draw the viewer’s attention.[20] Mark Rothko explored the expressive potential of rectangular fields of luminous colors that seem to float on the surface of the canvas. In his painting Nº 20 (1950, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Uperville, Virginia) it can be observed some large flat surfaces where the colors are combined without any kind of meaning or gestural elements. The shapes lack of texture effects and the line was deleted, avoiding mark outline of the picture, thus accentuating the lack of boundaries. His work achieves a great simplicity and design unit, heading for a mode of more general references.

In conclusion, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were two artists who converged at a given time mainly influenced by the historical context that surrounded them. In view of the evidences presented here, I would argue that both artists faced with a political and social climate influenced by the Great Depression, World War II and subsequent Cold War, expressing their dramatic experience needed. And, even if it is served in different languages ​​and rhetorical different artistic styles, both authors had in common a final aim, creating a seamless relationship between viewer and art.

[1] D. Thistlewood, ‘Introduction: Historicity and Mythology in American Abstract Expressionism’ in D. Thistlewood, American Abstract Expressionism (Liverpool University Press and Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1993), p. 8

[2] S. Polcari, Abstract expressionism and the modern experience (Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1994), p. 3

[3] J. Harris, ‘Modernism and Culture in the USA, 1930-1960’ in P.Wood et al., Modernism in Dispute: Art since the Forties (London & New Haven: Yale UP/OU, 1993), p. 41

[4] Harris, ‘Modernism and Culture in the USA, 1930-1960’, p. 39

[5] Harris, ‘Modernism and Culture in the USA, 1930-1960’, p. 36

[6] D. Wigal, Jackson Pollock: Encubriendo la imagen (Bogotá: Panamericana Editorial, 2008), p. 58

[7] A. C. Chave, Mark Rothko, Subject in Abstraction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 93

[8] Polcari, Abstract expressionism and the modern experience, p. 124

[9] C. Harrison, ‘Expresionismo Abstracto’ in N. Stangos, Conceptos de arte moderno (Barcelona: Ediciones Destino, 2000), p. 198

[10] The Metropolitan Museum of Art: ‘Jackson Pollock’ http://www.metmuseum.org/collections (accesed 01 February 2014)

[11] Wigal, Jackson Pollock: Encubriendo la imagen p. 58

[12] Polcari, Abstract expressionism and the modern experience, p. 117

[13] Wigal, Jackson Pollock: Encubriendo la imagen, p. 85

[14] E. Doss, Twenty-Century American Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 120

[15] Polcari, Abstract expressionism and the modern experience, p. 117

[16] Harris, ‘Modernism and Culture in the USA, 1930-1960’, p. 29

[17] Harrison, ‘Expresionismo Abstracto’, p. 199

[18] Doss, Twenty-Century American Art, p. 130

[19] H. Honour & J. Fleming, A world history of art (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2009), p. 835

[20] Harris, ‘Modernism and Culture in the USA, 1930-1960’, p. 55