Norman Lewis (1909 – 1979), began his art career as a figurative painter, focusing on life in Harlem. In 1946, he announced that he wanted to create art that broke away from what he called “its stagnation in too much tradition.” Inspired by the writings and art of the Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky, one of the first artists to create abstract paintings, Lewis abandoned representation in favor of the “conceptual expression” of ideas. Like other Abstract Expressionists working in New York, Lewis was deeply interested in music, and especially jazz, which influenced the painting of Phantasy II (1946). In an automatic process, he made a linear composition with boldly colored lines and forms akin to the improvisational structure of jazz.
A leading artist among the Abstract Expressionists, Willem de Kooning never believed that abstraction and representation were mutually exclusive. As he stated: “I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it–drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or idea.” Woman and Bicycle, one of a series of “Woman” paintings he made between 1950 and 1953, depicts a standing woman, whose form is clearly visible despite the painterly integration of her body into the surrounding field of non-objective marks. Although the female figure is one of the most traditional subjects in the history of art, the woman in de Kooning’s painting distinctly belongs to the 1950s. Her bright yellow dress, high heels, and garish smile — with a second toothy grin hanging below it like a necklace — reflect the glamorous pin-up girls and movie stars of the period.
Like the Surrealists he admired, and his fellow Abstract Expressionists, William Baziotes (1912 – 1963) was fascinated by the power of myth. Here, the title The Flesh Eaters (1952) and its imagery suggest the story of the Cyclops, the one-eyed giant who devoured Odysseus’s sailors in Homer’s epic poem. In this ambitious work, Baziotes applied layer upon layer of oil paint and rubbed it into the canvas to create a shimmering, opalescent surface that evokes an underwater world inhabited by undulating, biomorphic forms. Characteristically, the artist combined menacing forms with luminous colors to create a paradoxical work that is both repulsive and compelling.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
In the 1940s, Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997), with his artist friend Arshile Gorky, frequented the Metropolitan Museum to study portraits by 19th-century French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. this seated figure, which belongs to de Kooning’s first series of Women paintings, demonstrates his interest in the human form. Awkwardly posed, the woman’s arms, legs and breasts exist as abstract shapes in a flattened space. Like other Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning was interested in portraying nature as simultaneously creative and destructive. Although the figure is recognizable as a woman, de Kooning arrangements of form, line, and color gives the effect of a body coming together and falling apart.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Jasper Johns created Green Target in 1955. The painting was included in a group show at the Jewish Museum. There the painting caught the attention of Leo Castelli, an art collector and self-described playboy who decided, at the age of 51, to open a gallery in New York.
Castelli had begun by selling paintings from his own collection; he also approached several young artists whose work interested him. In March 1957, after the Jewish Museum show, Castelli went to Pearl Street to invite Robert Rauschenberg to show at his gallery. In passing, Castelli mentioned that he had seen a painting by someone with the peculiar name of Jasper Johns, and that he would like to meet the artist. “Well, that’s very easy,” Rauschenberg said, “he’s downstairs.”
“I walked into the studio,” Castelli recalled, “and there was this attractive, very shy young man, and all these paintings. It was astonishing, a complete body of work. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
For Johns, who did not want to be associated with any particular group of painters, Castelli’s gallery was ideal, since it was new and had no specific identity. Castelli showed Johns’ Flag (1955) in a group show at his gallery later in 1957, and in 1958 he gave Johns his first one-man show. Here Johns displayed the result of more than three years of sustained effort: his flags, his targets, his numbers and alphabets. Johns became “an overnight sensation,” and was immediately plunged into a critical controversy that continued for several years.
To understand the controversy, one must recall the attitude of the New York art world in the middle 1950s. Abstract Expressionism – that movement which took as its fundamental tenet the necessity of communicating subjective content through an abstract art – reigned supreme in the city. The importance of Abstract Expressionism was confirmed by the fact that, for the first time in history, an indigenous American art movement had gained international significance.
The New York art world cherished Abstract Expressionism; it was almost impossible to conceive of anything else, to imagine any other premise for painting. As Rauschenberg said of that time, a young painter had “to start every day moving out from Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, which is sort of a long way to have to start from.” The burden was very heavy.
At the same time, the second generation of Abstract Expressionist painters were often perceived to have “slavishly imitated” their predecessors. The early shock and excitement of the movement were gone. “As the art market was glutted with the works of de Kooning’s admirers, the real achievements of de Kooning and his generation were becoming obscured.” There was a sense of waiting for something fresh and new, and newly provocative.
Johns provided the provocation. His assured and finely worked paintings of flags and targets offered an alternative to Abstract Expressionism, and reintroduced representation – the recognizable image – into painting.