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Chapter 34: From Post Modernism and Beyond – Art of the Later 20th Century


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Chapter 34: From Post Modernism and Beyond – Art of the Later 20th Century
World War II, with the global devastation it unleashed, psychological, political, physical, and economic, set the stage for the second half of the 20th century. The dropping of the bomb on Japan signaled a turning point. As a result the rest of the 20th century has been one of upheaval, change, and conflict. The constant presence of conflict throughout the world in the later 20th century resulted in wide spread disruption and dislocation. The Hindu Muslim conflict that resulted when the British left India in 1947, the Israeli Arab conflict, the Communist rise to power in China after a momentous war, the conflict in Korea, the brutal spread of Communism through much violence, Vietnam, the Cold War between the US and Russia, the conflicts in Africa and Central and South America, and the rise of radical Islam, all characterize these troubles.
These great events had tremendous effect on the world. The US was less affected when compared to Europe, but was still not immune. In the post war years, Americans began to question the status quo. There was the rise of the counterculture in the late 50’s, the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, through today. The resistance to established authority, power structures, and the traditional family, was characterized by rebellion and the rejection of racism and sexism.
The Dynamics of Power
The central issue that fueled these changes was power. Individual groups, such as feminists, various ethnic groups, gay and lesbians, and others have sought recognition, respect and legal protection through political and legal action. These groups today have a powerful influence in the educational institutions, political institutions, and in media. As a result of this concern for the dynamics of power, identity (both individual and group), has emerged as a potent arena for discussion and action. This quest and struggle has fueled the content of much of the art of the late 20th and early 21st century.
The Art World’s Focus Shifts West
The period’s emphasis on change carried over into the art world. The relative economic stability of the United States was a major factor in the shifting center of Western art from Paris to New York. This helps to explain the predominance of American artists in the world art markets. Only in the closing decades of the twentieth century, with the rising interest in multiculturalism and global economies, have countries outside the United States begun to exhibit art more broadly.
Modernism, Formalism, and Clement Greenberg
Modernism, so integral to the art of the later 19th century, shifted course in conjunction with the changing historical conditions and demands, and in the post war years it became increasingly identified with strict formalism. Formalism is an emphasis on an artwork’s visual elements rather than its subject – due largely to the prominence of the American Clement Greenberg (1909-1994). As an art critic who wielded considerable influence from the 1940’s through the 1970’s, Greenberg was instrumental in redefining the parameters of modernism.
For Greenberg, late 20th century modernist artists were those who refined the critical stance of the late 19th and early 20th century modernists. This critical stance involved rejecting illusionism and exploring the properties of each artistic medium. So dominant was Greenberg that scholars often refer to the general modernist tenets during this period as Greenbergian Formalism. Though he modified his stance over the years, Greenberg retained certain basic concepts. In particular Greenberg promoted the idea of purity in art. He explained, “Purity in art consists of acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of a specific art.” I other words, he believed artists should strive for a more explicit focus on the properties exclusive to each medium – for example two dimensionality or flatness in painting, and three dimensionality in sculpture. To achieve this, artists had to eliminate illusion and embrace abstraction.

Greenberg elaborated:


It follows that a modernist work of art must try, in principle, to avoid communication with any order of experience not inherent in the most literally and essentially construed nature of its medium. Among other things, this means renouncing illusionism and explicit subject matter. These arts are to achieve concreteness, “purity,” by dealing solely with their respective selves – that is, by becoming “abstract” or nonfigurative.”
Greenberg avidly promoted the avant-garde, which he viewed as synonymous with modernism in the postwar years. Generally speaking, the spirit of rebellion and disdain for convention central to the historical avant-garde flourished in the social political upheaval and counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s. However the acute social political dimension inherent in the avant-garde’s early development had evaporated by this time (many artists considered avant-garde aligned themselves with the Left). Thus the avant-garde and modernism became primarily an artistic endeavor. Still, the distance between progressive artists and the public widened. In his 1939 article “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg insisted on the separation of the avant-garde from kitsch (which Greenberg defined as “ersatz” or artificial, culture, such as popular commercial art and literature), thereby advocating the continued alienation of the public from avant-garde art.
The Emergence of Postmodernism
The intense criticism of the discipline and the unrelenting challenges to the artistic convention that were central to modernism eventually led to its demise in the 1970’s. To many, it seemed artistic traditions had been so completely undermined that modernism simply played itself out. From this situation emerged postmodernism, one of the most dramatic developments during the century. Postmodernism cannot be described as a style; it is a wide spread cultural phenomenon. Many people view it as a rejection of modernist principles. Postmodernism is far more encompassing and accepting than the more rigid confines of modernist practice. Postmodernism’s ability to accommodate seemingly everything in art makes it extremely difficult to provide a clear and concrete definition of the term. In response to the elitist, uncompromising stance of modernism, postmodernism grew out of a naïve and optimistic populism.
Whereas the obscure meaning of abstract work limited the audience for modernist art, postmodern artists offer something for everyone. For example, in architecture, postmodernism’s eclectic nature often surfaces in a whimsical mixture of styles and architectural elements (such as Greek columns juxtaposed with ornate Baroque décor.) In other artistic media, postmodernism accompanies a wide range of styles, subjects, and formats, from traditional easel painting to video and installation (artwork creating an artistic environment in a room or gallery), and from the spare abstraction associated with modernism to carefully rendered illusionistic scenes.
The emergence of postmodernism was also driven by theoretical concerns, such as exploring the relationship between art and the mass culture, and examining the tendency to privilege the artist’s voice in the search for the meaning of art. Various investigations have been identified as particularly postmodern, including critiquing modernist tenets, reassessing the nature of representation, and questioning the ways in which meaning is generated. Despite the prevalence of theory in postmodernism, much of the art produced during the postmodern period is resolutely grounded in specific historical conditions, issues such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.
Postwar Expressionism in Europe
The end of World War II in 1945 left devastated cities, ruptured economies, and governments in chaos throughout Europe. These factors, coupled with the massive loss of life and the horrors of the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, resulted in a pervasive sense of despair, disillusionment and skepticism. While many, such as the Futurists, had tried to find redemptive vale in World War I, it was almost impossible to do the same with World War II, coming so closely on the heels of “the war to end all wars.” World War I was a European conflict that left 10 million dead; World War II was a global conflict that left 35 million dead.
Existentialism: The Absurdity of Human Existence
The cynicism emerging across Europe was reflected in the popularity of existentialism, a philosophy asserting the absurdity of human existence and the impossibility of achieving certitude. Many existentialists also promoted atheism and questioned the possibility of situating God within a system of philosophy. The roots of existentialism is often traced to the Danish theologian Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Friedrich Nietzsche, and others. In the postwar period, the writings of French author Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) most clearly captured the existential spirit. According to Sartre, people must consider seriously the implications of atheism. If God does not exist, then individuals must constantly struggle in isolation with the anguish of making decisions in a world without absolutes or traditional values
This spirit of pessimism and despair emerged frequently in European art of the immediate postwar period. A brutality or roughness appropriately expressing both the artist’s state of mind and the larger cultural sensibility characterized much of this art. Painting, by British artist, Francis Bacon (1910-1992), is a compelling and revolting image of a powerful figure who presides over a scene of slaughter. Painted in the year after World War II ended, this work can be read as an indictment of humanity and a reflection or war’s butchery. The central figure is a stocky man with a gaping mouth and a red stain on his upper lip as if devouring the raw meat around him. The umbrella over him recalls wartime images of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who so underestimated Hitler, to everyone’s disaster, and was frequently photographed with an umbrella. Bacon suspended a flayed carcass behind the central figure like a crucified human form, adding to the visceral impact of the painting. Although sources of his imagery are not clear, Bacon’s work is “an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself.”
Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) expresses his tortured vision of the world through his manipulation of materials in Vie Inquiete, or Uneasy Life. Dubuffet presents a scene incised into thickly encrusted parched looking surfaces. He first built up an impasto (a layer of thickly applied pigment) of plaster, glue, sand, asphalt, and other common materials. Over that he painted or incised crude images of the kind produced by children, the insane, and scrawlers of graffiti. Scribblings interspersed with the images heighten the impression of smeared and gashed surfaces of crumbling walls and worn pavements marked by random individuals. Dubuffet believed the art of children, the mentally unbalanced, prisoners, and outcasts were more direct and genuine because it was unsullied by experience and untainted by conventional standards of art and aesthetic response. He promoted Art-Brut – untaught, coarse, and rough art.
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) expressed the spirit of existential art in his sculpture, even though he never expressed that connection. His friend Sartre saw Giacometti’s sculptures as the epitome of existentialist humanity – alienated, solitary, and lost in the world’s immensity. Giacometti had produced figure sculptures from observation early in his career, but around 1940 he abandoned this approach and worked from memory. His sculptures of the 1940’s, such as, Man Pointing, were thin, virtually featureless figures with rough, agitated surfaces. Rather than conveying the solidity of mass, these severely attenuated figures seemed swallowed up by the space surrounding them, imparting a sense of isolation and fragility, speaking to the pervasive despair in the aftermath of World War II.

Modernist Formalism
Abstract Expressionism

The center of the Western art world shifted in the 1940’s from Paris to New York due in large part because of World War II. The European artists fleeing the devastation of the war energized the avant-garde in America for a period lasting from the 1940’s to the 1970’s.



Abstract Expressionism, the first major American avant-garde movement, emerged in New York (and is often referred to as the New York School) in the 1940’s. The artists associated with Abstract Expressionism produced paintings that are, for the most part, abstract but express the artist’s state of mind. They intended to strike an emotional cord with the viewer. The Abstract Expressionists tried to express what psychiatrist Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. To do so, many adopted Surrealist improvisation methods, such as “psychic automatism,” and used their creative minds as open channels for unconscious forces to make themselves visible. These artists turned inward to create, and the resulting works convey a rough spontaneity and energy. The Abstract Expressionists meant the viewer to grasp the content of their intuitively, in a state free from structured thinking. The artist Mark Rothko wrote: We assert man’s absolute emotions. We don’t need props or legends. We create images whose realities are self evident. Free ourselves from memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or life, we make it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is understood by anyone who looks at it without nostalgic glasses of history.
The Abstract Expressionist movement developed along two lines. Gestural Abstraction relied on the expressiveness of energetically applied pigment. In contrast, Chromatic Expressionists focused on colors emotional resonance.
Gestural Abstraction

The work of Jackson Pollack (1912-1956) best exemplifies Gestural Abstraction. His early work reflects the influence of his teacher Thomas Hart Benton. Pollack developed his own unique style by the 1940’s. By 1950, Pollack had refined his technique and was producing large scale abstract paintings such as Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). These paintings are composed of rhythmic drips, splatters, and dribbles of paint on mural sized fields of energetic skeins of pigment envelop viewers. Pollack used sticks or brushes; he flung, poured and dripped paint (traditional oils along with aluminum paints and household enamels). He responded to the image as it developed. Gestural Abstraction emphasized the creative process that was both spontaneous and choreographed. Pollack literally immersed himself in the process of painting. He explained, “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides, and literally be in the painting. Pollack’s idea of spontaneity from the subconscious has been linked by scholars to Pollack’s interest in Jungian psychology and the concept of a collective consciousness. Furthermore he was influenced by the Surrealists, who relied heavily on the sub consciousness.


In addition to Pollack’s unique working methods, the lack of a well defined focus in his paintings significantly departed from conventional painting. The expansive scale of his canvases moved him away from easel painting and earned him the derisive nick name with the public of “Jack the Dripper.” Pollack was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1949 with the title of the article asking the question “Jackson Pollack: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Pollack died in a car crash at age 44 cutting short his innovative artistic vision.
Despite the public’s skepticism about Abstract Expressionism, many artists pursued similar avenues of expression. Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), was a Dutch born artist who also developed a Gestural abstractionist style. His images, such as, Women I, rooted in figuration, display sweeping and energetic stokes in the application of paint. His series of women produced fierce images that had their inspiration in the female models seen in advertising. De Kooning’s female images suggest fertility figures, and a satirical inversion of the traditional view of Venus.
De Kooning continually worked on Women I for two years, painting an image then scrapping it away to start anew. His wife Elaine, also a painter, estimated that he must have painted 200 scrapped-away images of women on this canvas before settling on the final image. De Kooning also created non-representational works that were intense and raw, sometimes even having ragged holes in the canvas because of his vigorous process.
Gestural Abstraction was also called Action Painting, a term coined by the critic Harold Rosenberg. From his influential article of 1952, The American Action Painters, Rosenberg described the attempts of the artists to “get inside” their canvas. At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act – rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or express an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of that encounter. While many critics objected to Rosenberg’s analysis, his term was adopted and widely used.
Chromatic Abstraction

In contrast to the gestural abstractionists, the work of the chromatic abstractionists exudes a quieter aesthetic. The emotional resonance of their work derives from their eloquent use of color. Barnett Newman (1905- 1970) in his early paintings presented organic abstractions inspired by his study of biology and his fascination with Native American art. He soon simplified his compositions so that each canvas, such as Vir Heroicus Sublimis (literally, “heroic sublime man”), consists of a single slightly modulated color field split by narrow bands the artist called “zips,” which run from one edge of the painting to another. Neman said, “The streak was always going through the atmosphere; I kept trying to create a world around it.” He did not intend the viewer to perceive zips as specific entities, separate from the ground, but as accents energizing the field and giving it scale. By simplifying his compositions, Newman increased color’s capacity to communicate and to express his feelings about the tragic condition of modern life and the human struggle to survive. He claimed: “The artist’s problem… is the idea-complex that makes contact with mystery – of life, of men, of nature, of the hard black chaos that is death, or the grayer, softer chaos that is tragedy.”


Mark Rothko (1903-1970) also dealt with universal themes. Born in Russia, Rothko’s family moved to the United States when he was 10. His early paintings were figurative in orientation. He soon arrived at the belief that references to anything specific in the physical world conflicted with the sublime idea of the universal, supernatural “spirit of myth,” which he saw as the core of meaning in art. Rothko, along with Newman and Adolph Gottlieb expressed their belief about art in a joint statement. We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal… We assert that… only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.
Rothko’s paintings became compositionally simple, and he increasingly focused on color as the primary conveyor of meaning. In works such as No. 14, Rothko created compelling visual experiences consisting of two or three large rectangles of pure color with hazy, brushy edges that seem to float on the canvas surface, hovering in front of a colored background. When properly lit, these paintings appear as shimmering veils of intensely luminous colors suspended in front of the canvases. Although the color juxtapositions are visually captivating, Rothko intended them as more than decorative. He saw color as a doorway to another reality, and he was convinced color could express “basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” He explained, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.” Like the other Abstract Expressionists, Rothko produced highly evocative, moving paintings that relied on formal elements rather than specific representational content to raise the emotions of the viewer.
David Smith (1906-1965) was an American sculptor, who, while not directly associated with the Abstract Expressionists, displayed affinities with the tenets of that movement. Smith learned to weld in an automotive plant in 1925 and later applied this technical expertise to his art. In addition, working in large scale in the factories, helped him to visualize the possibilities for monumental metal sculpture. After experimenting with a variety of sculptural styles and materials, Smith created his Cubi series in the early 1960’s. Cubi XIX consists of simple geometric forms – cubes, cylinders, and rectangular bars. Made of stainless steel, piled on top of one another, and then welded together these forms to create imposing large-scale sculptures. Despite this basic geometric vocabulary, Smith’s works suggest human characteristics. Smith added gestural elements reminiscent of the abstract expressionists by burnishing the metal with steel wool, producing swirling random-looking patterns that draw attention to the two dimensionality of the sculpture surface. This treatment captures the light hitting the sculpture and activates the surface and imparts texture to the sculpture.
Post – Painterly Abstraction

Post - Painterly Abstraction, another American art movement, developed out of Abstract Expressionism. Many of the Post – Painterly Abstractionists were at one time Abstract Expressionists. Yet Post - Painterly Abstraction manifests a radically different sensibility. Whereas Abstract Expressionism conveys a feeling of passion and visceral intensity, a cool, detached rationality emphasizing tighter pictorial control characterizes Post-Painterly Abstraction.


The term was coined by art critic Clement Greenberg, who saw this art as contrasting with “painterly” art, characterized by loose, visible pigment application. Evidence of the artist’s hand, so prominent in gestural abstraction, is conspicuously absent in Post-Painterly Abstraction. Greenberg championed this art form because it seemed to embody his idea of purity in art.
Attempting to arrive at pure painting, Post-Painterly Abstractionists distilled painting down to its essential elements, producing spare, elemental images. One variant of Post-Painterly Abstraction is called hard-edge painting. Red Green Blue, by Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923) is an example of this style with its razor sharp edges and clearly delineated shapes. This work is completely abstract and very simple compositionally. There is no illusion of depth.
Frank Stella (b. 1936) was associated with the hard edged painters and pursued similar ideas into the 1960’s. In Mas o Menos (literally more or less), Stella eliminated many of the variables associated with painting. His simplified images of thin, evenly spaced pinstripes on colored grounds have no central focus, no painterly expressive elements, limited surface modulation, and no tactile quality. Stella’s systematic painting illustrates Greenberg’s insistence on purity in art. Stella commenting on his work said “What you see is what you see,” reinforces the notions that painters interested in producing advanced art must reduce their work to its essential elements and that the viewer must acknowledge that a painting is simply pigment on a surface.
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