American Fine Arts 1945-1970 Essay, Research Paper
Art during the mid-twentieth century contained some of the most important changes art history. These explosive times were counter-balanced with explosive popular culture. More historical events, abrupt changes, and turbulence occurred from the end of World War II until the height of the Vietnam War than in any time period. Before this time, styles of art had lasted generations. In the 1960’s numerous important art movements were happening at the same time. There were variations on variations, movements inside of other movements. Therefore, because of the amount of independent and integrated pieces of movements and styles, a lot can be missed in a short paper. The amount that happened in these twenty-five years is enough to fill volumes, and so, this is just a brief scraping off the top of what during these times—the most tumultuous times in American History.
The 1940’s through the 1960’s were not only some of the most socially and politically volatile times in American History, but were the catalyst for the numerous changes in which occurred in American Popular culture during these and following years. Instead of experiencing the trauma which resulted after World War I’s end, post-World War II United States returned fairly easily back to everyday life. Although there were some problems converting from a wartime to a peacetime economy in the late 1940’s, Americans took on the task and entered the 1950’s on a very auspicious high note. During the time period after World War II, the United States experienced many changes. Technology was abundant and the rate at which new inventions, industries and technologies came about was at a rate never seen before. From a television in every home to the first computers and ultimately space flight, these two decades after World War II were crowded with advancements. Some of the most dramatic changes came in the field of art. What was once a single, slow road of popular culture advancement branched off into thousands of smaller, faster changing roads. Some of these “roads”, which can be seen as changing styles, or movements, in art, whipped Americans through a roller coaster of change in what they saw around them.
The End of World War II:
The major art movement taking place in the United States directly after World War II was abstract expressionism. The abstract expressionist movement “devoted itself to the principles that art is most expressive when a relationship is established between the artist and the spectator” . For the most part, abstract expressionism attracted the American public with its simple methods and spontaneous appearance and more so because it was an entirely American art movement. With most of Europe at war and in recovery during the 1940’s, Americans were left with the principal responsibility of developing art. Abstract expressionism was, therefore, the first movement to originate in the United States. During the war in the times of chaos that existed in the world, America met the challenge of being the leader in art and developing their own movement which would span the 1940’s and the 1950’s.
One of the most important artists in abstract expressionism was Jackson Pollack (see appendix A). Pollack’s work runs throughout the span of the movement. The famous method of “action painting” which Pollack developed was much like the times he, and the other artists who practiced this method, lived in. “While there appears to be chaos in the erratic and loose placement of paint and strokes, there is still a great sense of the pieces being defined and controlled” . The abstract expressionists thought of their paintings as living things. In Jackson Pollack’s “My Painting”, from 1947, he says, “The source of my painting is the unconscious” . The world around Pollack and all world citizens at this point was chaotic—communism was running rampant, war had ripped throughout Europe, the nuclear bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. Yet, in this seemingly chaotic and uncontrollable world, these artists were seeking to reach away from life and towards the unconscious to control and to define, not destroy and massacre like the Cold War had. The abstract expressionists saw their “representations of paintings as continuous organisms, not merely an object left to hang on the wall, but as a living entity that continues in motion” . abstract expressionism dominated the art community for almost two decades and remained based in America.
In some ways, abstract expressionism “worked to reestablish art to its truest meaning—the existence of art in relation to the artists, and its eventual impact on society” . On the other hand, the movements that began to coalesce on the tail end of abstract expressionism were focused at an opposite goal. Instead of using art to create popular culture, artists would, as early as the beginning of the 1950’s, use popular culture to create art.
The 1950’s were a time of great discord in the United States. McCarthyism ran rampant throughout the nation and seriously crippled the every day lives of Americans. Civil rights began to appear as a major issue in all American’s lives as schools began to integrate black and white students and Rosa Parks sat on the bus where she was not permitted to in Montgomery, Alabama. While the other major mediums of popular culture involved themselves deeply in American politics, on the other hand, popular art stayed mostly as it was. Pollack, along with other abstract expressionists such as William DeKooning and Mark Rothko (see appendix B), continued to explore their field with action painting, abstractions and color-field painting, respectively. Abstract expressionism dominated the art world of the late 1940’s and 50’s. Yet as the 1950’s peaked, a new style of art began to appear in the art community.
For the first few years of its existence, and especially in New York, the new “Pop Art” movement went relatively unnoticed. The eventual recognition of Pop Art as a movement took the majority of the 1950’s but early Pop art was very interesting and unique to the art world. “When Pop art was recognized as a shared phenomenon, there was hesitation as to what to call it” . “Some suggested New Realism based on an analogy between French and American movements” promoted by Pierre Restany. Others suggested Anti-Sensibility Painting but people discredited this name because it “jumped the gun”; The majority of people thought that it was only thought of as Anti-Sensible because it was new and unfamiliar. A third name was Common Object Art, the closest suggestion to the later name of Pop art, and was used because this new art contained mainly commonplace, everyday objects, people, and places—objects from Popular culture. Eventually the name “Pop art” came along and stuck, it being perfect for this new wonder. The major pop artists of the 1950’s, such as Jasper Johns (see appendix C) and Robert Rauchenberg (see appendix D), took their images from everyday life. Johns painted the American flag and map as well as words, numbers and letters. Rauchenberg’s pieces contained reproductions of familiar people, places and objects, and created “combine-paintings” from paint, silk-screens, prints, three dimensional sculpture, and collaged paper. Their paintings were still somewhat abstract expressionist and stayed away from politics. From about 1955 until 1960, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauchenberg shared a studio and were the first and best audience for each other’s art. While their art is different, upon looking back at it, both Johns’ and Rauchenberg’s art had “a kind of proto-Pop art eminence” .
Rauchenberg deals, then, with a profusion of objects and events that he can accept with in a capacious aesthetic. Johns on the contrary, does not take an optimistic pleasure in the connectivity that random events generate…If Rauchenberg is the type of artist as radar operator, Johns is the artist as textual scholar, appraising unreliable symbols .
Both Johns and Rauchenberg were harbingers of the new art movement to come. As early Pop artists, they introduced the world to a new style of art, playing off abstract expressionism and looking towards the future.
During the early1960’s, art began to seep more and more into popular culture and expand into itself become a medium of vast difference. The 1960’s were the most dynamic of the decades. Popular culture has its own art movement at this point and there were more and more new artists joining its ranks everyday. Not only was Pop art appearing more frequently as a new art movement, but other movements were being seen more often such as Minimalism, Optical Art, Post-Pop and Photo-Realism, as well as Conceptual Art.
Most noticed during the early to mid 1960’s was the Pop Art movement. These times can be summed up as times during which the entire country was “experiencing a new cultural awakening mobilized by President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation of a ‘New Frontier’” . The American Pop Art movement was centered in New York City during this time period. “New York Pop included an enriching tale of humor combined with culture” much unlike American Pop Art’s cousin British Pop Art whose purpose was solely to undo the work of the abstract expressionists. The New York Pop artists also “represented the fulfillment of the American idea of mass-production” These new artists embarked on a style that did not limit them, but rather allowed them to explore the freest forms of their creative minds.
Their styles, if one can be defined, all employed different elements,
devices and meanings. They offered new artwork that was closely associated with the culture of the second half of the 20th century. They portrayed artwork through a variety of methods that differed from the ordinary painting or sculpture—including commercial, comic strip, and food sculptures. They aimed to depersonalize art, removing such elements as people, and sometimes focusing on technology or mechanization.
Generally, not one painter in the field of Pop Art was doing the same things as one of his or her counterparts. Yet, one of the major beliefs that ran through Pop Art was that all art is similar. All aspects of modern culture had similarities whether it was a television, assembly line, commercial or person. They used any objects, magazines, food, newspaper illustrations, clothing, furniture, cars and even cartoons as part of their theories on art. During this time, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauchenberg continued to explore the field of Pop Art, as well as many other newer artists such as Roy Lichtenstien and Andy Warhol.
One of the most prominent painters of the Pop Art movement was Andy Warhol (see appendix E). Andy Warhol began his career as a commercial graphic artist and worked directly in the field of Pop culture. After the 1950’s ended, Warhol moved into Pop art and out of Pop culture, taking with him numerous unique influences. Unlike Rauchenberg and Johns, Warhol’s subjects were not anonymous or symbolic. Warhol dug straight into the heart of pop culture and focused on copies of magazine ads, products found in the grocery store such as Campbell’s Soup, and famous movie stars and icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jackie Kennedy. Warhol’s art was free from aestheticism whatsoever. Warhol’s paintings were mass produced on silk screens at his studio aptly named “The Factory”. He showed that art is nothing more than what one makes of it and that it can be found everywhere. Roy Lichtenstien (see appendix F), another artist of this same period, felt the same way about art. One major difference between Warhol and Lichtenstien is that Lichtenstien focused on one major subject: comic strips. Lichtenstien, like the others, took something found in every day culture and created something new with it and something that works on many levels. In a 1963 interview with Gene R. Swenson, when asked if he thought Pop art was “despicable” Lichtenstien summed up Pop art overall:
…It is an involvement with what I think to be the most brazen and threatening characteristics of our culture, things we hate, but which are also powerful in their impingement on us. I think art since C?zanne has become extremely romantic and unrealistic, feeding on art…It has had less and less to do with the world…Outside is the world; it’s there. Pop art looks out into the world; it appears to except its environment…
And that was exactly what Lichtenstein’s, as well as all the other’s, art was doing. Taking the world and making it art. Along with Rauchenberg, Johns, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenberg, and Warhol, Lichtenstien laid the foundation for the future of art.
Pop art, unlike some other art movements, explored new art practices that allowed them to inquire into how art can differ from the more mundane abstract. At the time, people mainly enjoyed Pop art because of its connectivity from humanity to culture. Yet, today, the implications and hypotheses of Pop art have left an unprecedented impact on the art world.
Post-Pop and Photo-Realism
The later period of Pop-Art remained similar to what had been happening before. Painters like Ed Ruscha (see appendix G) still based their art on common things and basic forms. Yet, slowly, as we came closer to the end of the 1960’s, a strange occurrence began to happen in the art world. A new popular form of art was photo-realism. Photo-realism’s roots grew out of Pop art by taking the images seen from the everyday world. Artists like Richard Estes (see appendix H) painted scenes of cities, diners, and drive thrus while Chuck Close (appendix H) painted such realistic self portraits that they were virtually impossible to tell from a photograph. These paintings did not have any emotion and were cold but the accuracy was impossible to get away from, it made them fascinating. The main goal of photo-realism was to destroy completely what was once abstract or expressionist art. By doing this, there was the possibility of turning art a completely new direction—towards a non-abstractionist future.
The Op (Optical) Art movement was a very short movement taking place after Pop art, from 1964 until 1967. “Op Art began with the desire to involve a correlation between seeing and understanding” . The birth of Op Art came along when an article in Time Magazine in 1964 called a new art movement, where artists focus on eye manipulation, “Op Art”. The artists of the movement such as Bridget Riley (see appendix I) thought that their movement was one based on the eye and that the eye was the most important tool for observing and understanding art. One of the major goals of Op Art was to trick the brain and the eye—to make them interpret information differently. Like all other optical illusions, the Op artists would create images that did not really exist by using line and contrasting color. In Bridget Riley’s “Current”, when one walks towards or away from the picture, it appears to move. Op art went beyond Pop Art to create a manufactured look by eliminating paint and brushes completely and using machines instead. These artists wanted to show how a seemingly empty and meaningless picture could still capture the emotions of the viewer. “Op art has represented an exploration to understanding how man uses his eyes to interpret and absorb information” . What makes Op Art stand out as an important movement is that it made art into something that uses understanding as much as seeing. With Op Art, art became an experience.
Minimalism was another short movement taking place in the late 1960’s, primarily in sculpture. This movement received the most criticism from the public because no one understood how rows of rectangles or interlocking cubes were truly art. Yet, even though other artists thought their art should have some aesthetics, the Minimalists only wanted to portray their sculpture in a clear way. They used found objects like Styrofoam, wood, and fluorescent lights. Artists like Don Judd, Dan Flavin, and Frank Stella were the “select few” that were deemed the Minimalist artists in this time period. Whether they were painting stripes like Stella or creating sculpture from light bulbs like Flavin (see appendix J), they were directed towards the same idea: the idea of order. Minimalism was an important movement because of how antithetical it was compared to previous movements. Unlike the abstract expressionists, all ideas of emotion and feeling were removed from the piece. Minimalists also went beyond the Pop artists by removing the easily recognizable pictures of everyday things and reducing them to basic forms. Another important role which Minimalism played its influence on a following and even more abstract movement: Conceptual Art.
Conceptual Art is one of the most enigmatic movements in art. It is not based on actual art but rather on an idea or concept. The forefather of Conceptual Art was Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s philosophy was “that every artwork’s idea was more important than its product” They eliminated every object from the art itself being left with only an idea. If the idea was executed, it would only be executed with the necessary objects or even less artistically, words. Rather than paint and canvas, the Conceptual artist created books full of their ideas. The Conceptual artists purpose was to intrigue, shock, amuse, evoke some sort of emotion, and sometimes even anger the viewer. Conceptual art was a movement created more for the creator than the viewer. It allowed the artist to be completely free and able to express with out any limitations what so ever. And with the height of freedom which existed during this time period, Conceptual Art officially ends the definable era of Modern Art.