Book Review: Abstract Expressionism: Works on Paper

Abstract Expressionism book cover.jpg

Messinger, Lisa Mintz. (1992). Abstract Expressionism: Works on Paper. Selections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York. ISBN 978-0-30-008565-5

Abstract Expressionism: Works on Paper was the companion publication to exhibitions held at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia (January 26, 1993 - April 4, 1993) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York (May 4, 1993 - September 12, 1993). The exhibition focused on drawings, paintings, and collage on paper produced by New York artists associated with the movement.

Left: Virginia Landscape (1943) by Arshile Gorky

Left: Virginia Landscape (1943) by Arshile Gorky

Artists included in the book: William Baziotes, James Brooks, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Gerome Kamrowski, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollack, Richard Pousette-Dart, Theodore Roszak, Mark Rothko, David Smith, Theodoros Stamos, and Mark Tobey. Two women are represented, Elaine de Kooning, whose abstract expressionist drawings played a minor role in her overall illustrative and representational work as an artist, and Anne Ryan, whose collages were included in the exhibition because of her use of color and line, although the materials she used (paper and found materials rather than paint) and the apparent lack of philosophical underpinnings in her work precludes her from being considered an abstract expressionist.

Left: Number 319 (1949) by Anne Ryan

Left: Number 319 (1949) by Anne Ryan

The Abstract Expressionist movement developed in the era after World War II and was an attempt by these artists to explore inner worlds and express universal truths. "Expressionists' search for externalization of innermost emotions, and small-scale works on paper provided a means to explore and experiment and to react spontaneously on an intimate scale."  (p. xi). Some artists used the works on paper to problem-solve. Some translated small works into the much larger canvases associated with the movement. Some used automatism to reach a fluidity of movement and (subconscious) ideas in their work. The work was often aggressive, spontaneous, non-representational, and meant to push the boundaries of modern art.

Left: Revolve and Devolve (1943) by Gerome Kamrowski

Left: Revolve and Devolve (1943) by Gerome Kamrowski

The book provides readers with an introductory glimpse into the processes of Abstract Expressionist artists. For each person represented in the book, there are images of his or her works on paper, a short biography and (loosely) an explanation of how drawing influenced larger works. Along with the more familiar names, I found a few artists whose work I responded to and whose works I had not yet discovered.

The more I read about Abstract Expressionism, the more I "get" that these works are about about feelings, emotions, not words. These artists attempted to occupy and connect with a primal, archetypal space--something just beyond the reach of consciousness. I'm reminded of standing in front of a large Rothko painting. I must have been at the perfect viewing distance because, for a few seconds, the gallery "disappeared"  and I actually felt like I was in the painting, completely enveloped by color. It's only happened that once--I wish it would happen again!--but the experience gave me some wordless, emotional insight into these artists' pursuits.

Definitely a book for people seeking an introductory glimpse into the works Abstract Expressionist artists.

If you read this book, please let me know what you think. Leave a comment (below) or on facebook or instagram.

Cheers!--Janyce