Off the Cuff: A Style is Born

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

A photo of FWMoA President and CEO Charles Shepard in front of a contemporary glass piece currently on display.
Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

My focus today is the visual arts, but I can’t resist the urge to start this post off with a relevant example from the world of music. On a Sunday evening in 1964, an emerging British band, The Beatles, introduced 73,000 American viewers to a new style of music that many have referred to as pop rock. Light, catchy songs about love (I Want to Hold Your Hand; Love Me Do) delivered with cheery enthusiasm by four young men in neat suits sporting what became known as signature Beatle haircuts. A musical style was born that very night. Shortly after, that style spread to other young, aspiring musicians and the phenomena became bigger than its originators, the Fab Four. In less than a year, the Kinks appeared, then the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Herman’s Hermits, and dozens more such that it could be accurately said that the pop rock style had evolved into a vital trend throughout the music industry. The robust market for this pop rock trend attracted more and more musicians with related but stylistically diverse rock styles, and those new bands attracted an exponentially larger listener base. Collectively, the rock music trend grew so vast, and so resilient, that it—unlike bell bottoms or tie-dye shirts—was not going away. It had become, more accurately, an enduring movement.

Visual artists seldom have the opportunity to reach broad audiences like their musical counterparts, primarily because what they create, save for prints, generally isn’t made to be reproduced or mass distributed. That said, the Impressionists, who we’ve discussed before, were very successful in getting their new style of painting in front of a large number of French art lovers by organizing their Salon des Refusés to exhibit all the paintings that were rejected by the official Salon of Paris that year which loathed the new, looser, impressionistic style that Monet and others were adopting. One thousand people a day came to see works done in the impressionist style, and that was more than sufficient to establish the legitimacy of the style. Within a year or so, it became the dominant trend in French painting. And, not long after that, in the midst of a global array of emerging abstract styles, the appeal of Impressionism to both artists and audiences spread internationally and developed into a movement that has strength and relevance to this day.

The conscious creation of an artistic style, however, does not guarantee the broadening of its appeal and acceptance. Let’s look at Suprematism, a style developed by the progressive Russian painter Kaspir Malevich, which focused on basic geometric forms and featured an almost monotone palette. Malevich was already an established painter working in a cubist/futurist style when he developed his concept for Suprematism, which he believed would be art’s most pure movement. With little interest in or use for the “visual phenomena of the…world”, Suprematism concentrated on the feeling that a truly absolute, non-objective work of art could generate. The basic idea Malevich had in mind was that a work of art that didn’t try to refer to anything outside itself would be the truest object of art because it wasn’t re-presenting, depicting, or even referring, to anything else. A Suprematist painting, for example, might simply present a flat square of white on a flat background of slightly off-white which rested on a square, flat canvas. Honestly and accurately titled Composition – White On White, this painting suggests nothing but exactly what it presents—no illusions or pretensions. In Malevich’s mind, a painting like this had the power to generate great feelings in each viewer. In its logic, the Suprematist idea is interesting in that it tries to separate regular art that represents or comments on the world from “supreme” art that simply gives us a real thing: a square painting offering no illusions, for example. That said, however, Malevich’s pure, geometric style stimulated little interest from other artists and viewers. Within the group of less than a dozen Suprematist artists, more words were written promoting and defending the Suprematist cause than artworks created. A sure sign of trouble in any art style or trend is when the printed “manifesto” exceeds the size of the work hanging on the wall. Did Suprematism , then, evolve into a trend? For the smallish group of artists who were committed to Malevich’s concept of freeing art from objects in the world, Suprematism was a trend, at least in Russia, for close to five years before Stalinism led to the banning of abstract art. The greater impact of Suprematism was that it introduced the idea of non-objective art to a considerable number of artists outside of Russia who put their own “spin” on Malevich’s original notion.

In America, the most art historically important movement in 20th century art began with a collective search for a style. For generations, American art was heavily, if not entirely, influenced by European styles, trends, and movements. For almost two centuries, this seemed fine to both artists and their audiences. American art was expected to be, well, provincial. At the close of the 19th century and on into the beginning of the 20th as traditional artistic styles were being challenged by more progressive ones, European artists created and led the avant-garde styles and trends. World War I prompted a number of leading contemporary European artists to flee to the United States for their own safety. And the onset of World War II brought many more established and emerging European artists to America where they could not only survive, but also be treated with great respect. American artists initially welcomed their colleagues from across the pond with open arms. How terrific to break bread and talk art with some of the best known progressive artists in the world! But before long, a growing number of American-born artists became frustrated by their “country cousin” status and committed themselves to creating a distinctly American contemporary style that couldn’t be labelled as American Impressionism, or American Cubism, or American Dada, etc. Globally, the Modernist movement was based on versions of abstraction, but what kind of existing abstraction didn’t already bear a European label? This question was driving discussions in a number of artists’ groups that met regularly around the country, including the very prominent American Abstract Artists group based in New York City. American-born artists like Balcombe Greene, Barnett Newman, Stuart Davis, and Jackson Pollock were joined by yet unknown artists who immigrated to America to improve their lot in life, such as Willem de Kooning, Ilya Bolotowsky, Arshile Gorky, and Franz Kline. Despite their differences in styles and philosophies, they all wanted to be part of the creation of a distinctly American kind of art. Pollock’s brash nature and combative personality fired the group up, but de Kooning’s work ethic and supportive nature of his fellow artists provided the glue that held the group together.

It’s important to ask: Why were these artists looking for leadership at this exciting—and arguably, most important—moment as American art was unfolding? Leadership was the key to unifying a broad series of disorganized abstract styles into a singular style that both art critics and the press, in general, were eagerly trying to label. Most artists knew that Pollock was both too self-centered and self-destructive to provide leadership to the rest of the abstractionists. They realized that de Kooning was simply the best suited and the most interested in getting as many of the abstractionists under this new big tent before the flaps closed and the show began. In direct contrast to Malevich’s emphasis on monochromatic detachment, de Kooning, through his own work, showed his fellow abstract artists how to dig into their attachments and dramatically express something about them through powerful brushstrokes and vivid colors.

Robert Coates, art critic for the New Yorker, had the perfect name for this kind of art: Abstract Expressionism. Coates saw clearly that this new abstract work fused highly personal expression with seemingly spontaneous and intuitive execution. Like Coates, I think de Kooning knew that Abstract Expressionism had the potential to become much more than a style or a trend. This kind of work could redefine America’s position in the art world. With Paris and the rest of Europe in a shambles due to the War, this new Abstract Expressionism had the potential to put American art and culture on top of the world. Prominent critic Clement Greenberg agreed, as did the Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr. Pollock’s long feature in LIFE magazine basically cemented it. Abstract Expressionism’s progression, then, from a loosely linked assortment of abstract styles to a New York City trend to a national style took just about the same amount of time as it took the Beatles to launch a whole generation of music.

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