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Abstract Expressionism

David Gariff, senior lecturer, National Gallery of Art. From the mid-1940s through the 1950s painters in New York imbued their work with a heady new confidence, scale, and energy. Before and during World War II European émigrés poured into New York, including artists Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and the writer and surrealist leader André Breton. Their influence led to the exploration of biomorphic forms, archaic themes, and accidental processes designed to unleash the unconscious, like dripping and scraping. It is in the large canvases of the 1950s, by Jackson Pollock and others, that what one critic called “the triumph of American painting” can really be felt. These paintings increased ambition and introduced new techniques: Pollock’s rhythmic pours and drips, Clyfford Still’s dry palette-knifing, Newman’s masking-taped “zips,” Franz Kline’s chiseled gestures, and Joan Mitchell’s flurries of strokes. This generation of artists revealed new horizons in the practice of painting and the experience of viewing. As part of the series Celebrating the East Building: 20th-Century Art, senior lecturer David Gariff explores the triumph of American painting in postwar America. This lecture was presented on August 14, 2018, at the National Gallery of Art.