Disparities of American Pop Art and Abstraction

December 11, 2011

‘The two faces of this ‘Modernism’ could literally not recognise each other, until a very late stage. On the one hand what was seen as energetic minority art of a time of reduction and dislocation; on the other the routines of a technologized ‘mass’ culture’

American Abstraction and Pop Art are today described as ‘some of the best adverts for democracy ever created‘. Despite this, the imagery, concepts, and ideology of both movements are conflicting and sometimes even paradoxical to one another. Abstract Expressionism inspired by Surrealism and Automatism included two sub-groups: the action painters and colour field painters. ‘Its development was prepared for by the invention of photography, to which pictorial representation was essentially bequeathed‘. Although critics, historians and the general public have long debated possible concepts for this abstract imagery, the movement was universally seen as spiritual and detached from reality. By contrast Pop Art focused on reality and the banalities of American society and popular culture using flat and often emotionally detached methods.

The intention of this essay is to explore the significant differences between revolutionary American movements Pop Art and Modernist Abstraction; considering imagery, principles, form and content. One will focus on examples from the 1950s, but also use later examples to illustrate progression. Before exploring these disparities in any more depth it is important to also consider the similarities, and the background in which both movements flourished. In its founding years America was inspired by the mature established Avant-garde of Europe; deciding after the Armoury Show in 1913 to create a movement that was purely American. American Regionalism and Realism were the first reactions, acting as a ground for Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art to stand on through the 40s and 50s. During this time America was rebuilding after the Great Depression and World Wars, it was a time of ‘Capitalist pride’, as America prospered and expanded. Canned food became commonplace, its image embedded in the American mind; the consumerist culture projected through the possibility of television. Simultaneously, the Cold War left Americans paranoid and unsure of the future, the threat of atomic warfare leading to McCarthyism.

While Geometric Abstraction was explored by Kazimir Malevich and later explored by Josef Albers in the United States, one will primarily explore Abstract Expressionism in comparison to Pop Art as the evidence one has collected suggests the movement to be more individualistic to America. The first significant difference one will be describing is one based on the art critic Clement Greenberg’s theory of Modernism. Abstract Expressionism was first rejected by patriarchal American society;

‘This is not art- it’s a joke in bad taste- Headline in Reynold’s News in reaction to a Jackson Pollock show in New York 1959.

Jackson Pollock, (Number 1) Lavender Mist, 1950, oil on canvas

Jackson Pollock, Yellow Islands, 1952, oil on canvas

Greenberg’s writings defined the movement as a continuation of the high art tradition; eventually changing the consensus. He believed that Abstraction was equally a part of the Avant-garde as traditional painting movements, and that art was following a path towards simplification. ‘My experience…tells me nonetheless that the best art of our day tends, increasingly, to be abstract.

In his essay Avant-garde and Kitsch (1939), Greenberg refers to an ‘idealist culture’ which ‘…consists of the work from the authentic Modernist Avant-garde‘. While Greenberg discusses the term Kitsch on a scholarly level, he regards abstraction as a movement of taste, and non-related figurative movements merely as pastiche or second rate. Kitsch in Greenberg’s eyes was a result of the separation of class and culture, stating ‘purists who defend abstract art as the only defence against kitsch and the decline in culture, are the ones who value art more than anything else‘.

Paul Cezanne, Gardanne, 1885-86, oil on canvas

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples, 1890-94, oil on canvas

Greenberg’s continuation theory linked the paintings of 19th century artist Paul Cezanne to Abstract Expressionist works, praising his innovative use of flatness, spatial form and the use of the canvas in its entirety. He later wrote of Post Painterly Abstraction (a further development of his ‘purist’ theory), but dismissed Pop-Art as a non-Avant-garde movement. Whereas Abstract Expressionism rejected objectification, and escaped from consumerist culture, Pop-Art celebrated the very same culture and returned to figurative imagery. ‘From this perspective, the return to a concern with the medium of painting as a self-sufficient activity- containing its own justification-became impossible.‘ The existence of Pop-Art contradicted Greenberg’s theories in using representational imagery; this contradiction was furthered through its influences taken directly from contextual sources. ‘In the 1960s art appeared to rid itself in an offensive manor of everything that up until then could have been regarded as part of its concept. Beauty, exclusiveness, individuality, significance, artistry, complexity, depth, originality, were no longer mandatory categories‘.

The Idea of Kitsch that seemingly offended many artists and critics was a new concept in which art became humorous and witty; it commented on American life while reacting to the incomprehensibility of Abstract Expressionism. Despite the undeniable shock the emergence of Pop-Art caused, it was easier for Americans to relate to on a purely visual level. Abstract expressionists created feeling through their paint, while pop-artists almost duplicated a commercial image, finding not the technique important but the concept behind it. ‘Instead of looking like a billboard, Pop Art seems to be the actual thing‘. This outlines another major difference between both movements- that being the role of the artist.

Artist roles have been in constant transition since the Renaissance, abstract expressionists appealed to the particular notion of the artist being romantic, creative, and individualistic. This perception had been previously explored as the need to portray the world in a naturalistic way diminished through the late 19th and 20th century. Within the European tradition abstracting forms became a distinct part of an artist’s style, from Claude Monet’s vibrant paint daubs to Pablo Picasso’s ambiguous cubist creations. Impressionism and Cubism through abstraction created light and multiple perspectives, while forms of Expressionism mirrored human emotions and acted as a communicative outlet. Abstract Expressionism played on this, taking self-expression to new spiritual levels.

Pollock announced ‘We’ve got machines to represent objects, I want to represent what’s inside a person….because the paint has a life of its own, I have to let it live‘ while in contrast Andy Warhol claimed ‘the reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine‘. As Pollock stayed true to individualistic ideals, Warhol created a new role, simultaneously mimicking and celebrating mass culture and superficiality. He claimed that Pop-Art was about ‘liking things‘ that this made him a ‘machine’ as society as a whole liked the same things over and over again. As the former used his whole body to create his physical drip paintings, the latter used a camera and silk screen to mass produce his works like cans of soup. This comparison is a case of paint as expression against paint as a tool and nothing more. The sheer scale of abstract-expressionist works lent itself to the religious tradition of the alter-piece.

The withdrawal from everyday American imagery, replaced by large areas of colour or gestural marks in Abstract Expressionism was perhaps what made it a more ‘spiritual’ experience. At the height of his fame ‘the experience of seeing his pictures reproduced…alongside adverts for instant frozen dinners and ford’s latest motor cars made Pollock feel profoundly uneasy’; he felt through fame and fortune he was selling his soul. Similarly in 1959 Mark Rothko ‘repudiated his agreement to provide 600 square feet of paintings for the most exclusive room in the new Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building in New York‘. Although this was a very prestigious commission, it seemed to contradict the values of Rothko’s work. He asked himself ‘do I really want my work to be the amusement of those who pay $50 a plate?’ Rothko’s site specific paintings in his very own secular chapel were perhaps a more fitting amalgamation of his beliefs. He described how onlookers wept in front of his paintings as ‘the same religious experience I had when I painted them.‘ Both artists followed a moral etiquette, rejecting the shallow, spiritually absent qualities of 1950′s America; ‘they wanted to rise above the capitalist consumerist culture‘.

The Rothko Chapel, Houston, USA

Pop is not burdened with that self-consciousness of Abstract Expressionism‘ – Robert Indiana

In this quote Indiana is mocking the particular sense of morality felt by the abstract-expressionists. As Abstract Expressionism grew and flourished before Pop-Art, its individualistic tendencies had become tired for many artists. Ironically attempting to be unique seemed generic; depicting everyday culture was more revolutionary, outrageous, and appealing to emerging pop-artists. Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Brush Stroke’ created in 1965 depicts paint with paint that looks more like plastic. The shapes of the brush-stroke give a gestural feel, but this is over shadowed by the way the paint has been applied; it is de-contextualised and stylised, mimicking a comic strip. The reduction of this unique, gestural mark to a flat printed shape seems symbolic of the removal of painterly marks and expression in Pop-Art. While almost all visual imagery is expressive in some way, Pop-Art was impersonal in technique and expressive in concept. Tom Wesselmann stated ‘I use DeKooning’s brush knowing it’s his brush‘ while James Rosenquist’s claimed he only painted as he could not find collage material large enough, that each brush-stroke that occurred was collage in itself.

Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1965, print on paper

Both movements in question as earlier described cannot be discussed without the mention of social and political climates. Although Abstract Expressionism was not immediately political in terms of content, the movement became political in the repulsion its pioneers felt towards the celebration of superficiality (this could also have been an explanation for their move away from the object or figurative subject). This repulsion, or sense of freedom, inspired the American government to use Abstract Expressionism as visual ammunition against Russian propaganda art during the Cold War. While these motives were never behind the works of the abstract-expressionists, help from the government meant their projects were more often funded. ‘Pollock was promoted as, in the words of Eva Cockcroft, as a weapon of the Cold War‘ Pop-Art on the other hand was deliberately political, as although it aspired to depict consumer culture, it could not avoid the critical questions raised.

For Tom Wesselmann, the traditional subjects of the nude and still life became symbols of superficiality. He painted Coca-Cola bottles, meat, and packaged cans that appeared to be direct magazine cut-outs; aspects that were previously central to paintings were simplified almost beyond recognition. His figures were represented by one flat colour for skin, and distorted in shape with body parts pasted in photo realistically; the smiling mouth seeming even more superficial in its isolation. This focus on packaging and mass production over human identity related to Warhol’s initial Coca-Cola paintings, both artists encouraged debate of what was truly important in American society.

Tom Wesselmann, Still Life Number 30, 1963, mixed media

Tom Wesselmann ,The Great American Nude 27, 1962, oil on canvas

Tom Wesselmann, Still Life Number 20, 1962, mixed media Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola, 1960, oil on canvas

Warhol’s death and disaster series played on the repetition of horrific or traumatising incidents being reported through television, radio and newsprint. ‘When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any affect

‘ His car crash and electric chair prints reflected the morbid curiosity of society, while his pictures of celebrities emulated obsession of celebrity culture; a culture in which compassion could never really truly exist. People had never met these celebrities, yet they thrived on gossip and knowledge of their private lives, it was this aspect of Marilyn Monroe’s fame that perhaps tipped her over the edge. Warhol never separated himself from this celebrity crazed culture, and in creating ‘The Factory’, he made prints and films of anyone he felt worthy.

Image of Warhol’s Factory

Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1965, silk-screen print

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962, silk-screen print

Mark Rothko, Red on Maroon, 1959, oil on canvas

Mark Rothko’s suicide in 1970 made the world reconsider his work; his red paintings seemed to become a representation of how he was feeling. There is one comparison one can therefore make between Rothko’s red paintings and Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster’ series, the theme of ‘Death through Art’. Rothko’s red paintings are openly sinister at first glance, although it is something one cannot escape through the mood emitting colour. In Warhol’s prints however the colours are bright, synthetic, at a stretch manic, but almost mask the depicted themes. This point is perhaps more disturbing than Rothko’s mood provoking paintings; the removal of emotion in Pop-Art perhaps emboldening the sinister undertones.

After discussing significant differences one will now consider similarities between the two movements. Both Abstract Expressionism and Pop-Art lend themselves to the American dream. Grant Woods iconic image ‘American Gothic’ painted in 1930 shows the American dream in its early stages. A man and his daughter take their gender roles, the feminine role being one of domesticity, the masculine being one of hard labour. These two figures represent family values, hard work, and the benefits of their work. Dressed in 19th century costume, they embody what travellers to America imagined they would discover freedom, independence and the opportunity to ‘live off the fat of the land. There was no shame in celebrating financial gain; it was this philosophy perhaps that created America’s later fascination with mass production. The loss of spirituality in this case was what Abstract Expressionism was relating to. Abstraction embodied the American dream in freedom of expression, while Pop-Art possibly embodied it in a more corrupted way; recording the success of the boom during the 50s.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on canvas

While the concepts behind Abstract Expressionism and Pop-Art differ dramatically, aesthetically artists Robert Rauschenburg and Jasper Johns bridge the two movements together. Rauchenurg’sUntitled (Ashville Citizen)’ of 1952 appeals almost entirely to abstraction, the only figurative aspect being the involvement of newspaper under the black surface. This work would not look out of place beside post-painterly pieces created a decade later, considering this evidence Rauschenberg appears both pop-artist and abstractionist. His more famous works involving a melange of materials and mixed media techniques included photographs, screen-printing, but also a range of expressive mark making combining the two movements.

Robert Rauschenberg, Ashville Citizen, 1952, oil and newspaper on canvas

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1954, oil and mixed media on canvas

Jasper Johns used the American flag as an emblem to experiment with painterly techniques. Rather than the motif or visual icon of the flag in the wind, Johns presented ‘the flag as a flat immobile two-dimensional object’. His flag paintings promoted the idea of entirely American art practice, simultaneously involving expressive use of materials.

Jasper Johns, Flag, Encaustic, oil and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, 1954-55

This sometimes ambiguous boundary between both movements was perhaps because in spite of their manifesto, many pop-artists grew up inspired by Abstract Expressionism. Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola series of 1960 used a mix of gestural brushstrokes and flat application; ‘the first two contained painterly drips, smudges, and aggressive brushwork’ this was before he perfected his aesthetically artificial style of painting and printing. Warhol later admitted that he liked Abstract Expressionism but claimed ‘I wasn’t sure if you could completely remove all the hand gestures from art and become non-committal, anonymous’.

Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola, 1960, oil on canvas

The intention of this essay was to explore the significant differences between revolutionary American movements Pop Art and Modernist Abstraction; considering imagery, principles, form and content. One considered Greenberg’s theory of Modernism and Kitsch, the contrast of spirituality and superficiality, technique and concept, political aspects, and finally similarities of both movements. Although both movements differed on many levels, they both originated through the same social climate of the mid-20th century. In this sense the ‘art of a time of reduction and dislocation’ and the art of ‘technologized ‘mass’ culture’ were not entirely opposite. Similarities occurred aesthetically, and also in the fact that both movements were political and embodied the American dream.

 Despite being repudiated in its beginning, Pop Art today is considered an Avant-guard movement; its basis seen as an influence to the self-critical nature of Post-modernism. With the contextual and historical distance one has from both movements at this present time, it is possible to see the movements less as completely opposite entities, and more as a part of a complex and diverse artistic reaction to American society in this period.

One Response to “Disparities of American Pop Art and Abstraction”


  1. Fascinating and knowledgeable blog. How do I subscribe to it?


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