Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Post-Modernism

Topic 6: Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Post-Modernism

  • World War II marked a decisive change in the art world; New York replaced Paris as the source of innovation and as the center of the art trade. In part this occurred as European artists and architects immigrated to escape totalitarianism and war. The arrival in the United States of Germany's most prominent modernist architects would transform the world of American architecture in particular.

  • In the years leading up to the war, one of the most important new styles to emerge was Surrealism. The Surrealists sought to give form to the irrational side of the human nature, to express the contents of the unconscious mind as described by Sigmund Freud. They employed dreamlike imagery full of strange juxtapositions. However, the Surrealists became less influential after the war, in part because they used recognizable imagery in an era when art theorists increasingly prized pure abstraction.

  • Surrealism had connections to the earlier Dadaist movement, which explored absurdity and chance. Marcel Duchamp, whose work had affinities with Dadaism, had been one of the first European modernists to work in New York. His display of "readymades" - ordinary manufactured objects transformed into art by changing their context - expanded the definition of art and would influence later artists in their use of found objects and installations.

  • Unquestionably, the dominant style of the immediate postwar era was abstract expressionism, a form of non-representational painting which presented the work of art as an expression of the experience of creation, rather than as a recognizable image. Key practitioners included the Dutch-born Willem de Kooning, as well as the American-born Jackson Pollock (whose massive "action" or "drip" paintings were the best known works in this style), Lee Krasner, and Helen Frankenthaler.

  • Abstract Expressionism developed in the United States - it was sometimes called the "New York school", and, while it sometimes aroused hostility in viewers, corporate and government patrons embraced it as an expression of American individualism and a visible sign of America's increasing sophistication and power.

  • Corporate patrons also promoted "International Style" architecture - the stripped-down modernism of Le Corbusier and of Bauhaus architects such as Mies van der Rohe. It became the requisite style for the new skyscrapers that dominated American skylines, a development that did not always sit well with older American architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked in a more organic style. A later generation of post-Modernists would rebel against modernist orthodoxy through the deliberate inclusion of historicist details.

  • From the 1960s onward, experimentation and a desire to push the boundaries of the definition of art came to the fore. Conceptual art, installations, performance art, and the "pop art" of Andy Warhol incorporated images and objects not previously seen as art. Earth art, exemplified by Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, made the face of the earth itself into art.

Related Links:
Modernism & Post-Modernism Quiz
Ancient America - Mesoamerica
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes