Jackson Pollock is a giant of contemporary art history. Instantly recognisible, an auction house's wet dream (his last piece "Number 19" (1948) was sold by Christies this year for a reported $58,363,750, a snip compared to Number 5 that went for $140,000,000 in 2006). He's a true American hero.
His work will be debated and revered for an eternity, having been promoted as the man who delivered the ultimate freedom that Western artists had been searching for. He liberated subject, line, composition, medium and method, he put the canvas on the floor and used brushes to drip and splatter in place of conventional painting. He was a pivotal pawn in finally wrenching America into the world of contemporary art and putting them down in history as developing an iconic movement within the history of art, that would shift the power and economic rewards across the globe.
Abstract Expression, gestural abstraction, action painting, whatever terms used to describe him do not really matter as his style is so instantly recognisable, his name alone suffices to describe his mature works. When talking of his contemporaries Mark Rothko would be the first name to spring to mind, another art market giant who secured the commercial success of the new American masters.
However, this wave of expressionism was not the sole domain of the Yanks, the Europeans were delving into these waters with equally wrenching ferocity. It was ultimately The Paris School versus The New York School and, commercially, New York won. This result could largely be due to politics. The CIA and American government saw the Abstract Expressionists as a fantastic propaganda tool against communist Russia, a visual expression of freedom (look what we let our artists do), a power tool to solidify their new found status as a “democratic” super power (and conveniently display the reemergence their economy following the Great Depression, far better to promote recovery coming from industry connected with manufacturing big cars, space rockets and a booming art world, than from tanks and bombs).
Or maybe the American's success is also because their art is less forceful, less upsetting, than their European counterparts', who were far more closely immersed in the devastation. There was no heroic gung-ho attitude in Europe, and the raw pain in the gestural abstraction of Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze (Wols) is palpable.
I do not want to take away from the greatness of Pollock and Rothko, the World was reeling from the unimaginable horrors of the second world war and artists had so much to express with little comprehension on how to express it. Pollock, and Rothko among others, managed to create works that connected and offered catharsis in a universal and amazingly timeless way. Stories, photographs and memories of the atrocities would surely have made figurative painting impossible on every level. The world had irrevocably changed and art had to change with it, The New York School offered an alternative that satisfied.
However, today memories of the horrors that created these works are not at the forefront of the minds of viewers who are unversed in the time-lines of art history. For those looking at the paintings with no context with which to draw on, no knowledge of the artists' personal struggles or the World context in which the art was born, it is completely understandable how some could dismiss their depth or worth. Without knowing what came before, Pollock is just a lot of visually appealing splatttering on canvas, Barnett Newman is just a line down a big blank painting.
In contrast to this, when we look at the German artist Wols (who was living and working in Paris), whether an untrained viewer thinks the painting lacks technical skill or not, the expression from the painting cannot be avoided. His works are painfully expressive and burn deep into the psyche.
Lesser known Wols (promoting work of a German artist in the 1940s was probably not high of the art market's agenda...) is linked to lyrical abstraction, art informel, and tachisme. Art informel is not really about an informal free style but about there being a lack of form, perhaps derived from the need to move away from conscious structure, to escape rules, to find something away from anything that has gone before. Running away from the rigid forms and structure of geometric abstraction and cubism, a need for something more ethereal. After horrors from the regimes in the war, structured process must have been repulsive. Organised would sound threatening, control terrifying.
There grew in art a whole psyche of otherness, expression coming from somewhere unknown, a deep rooted need to connect and say something that no one could say or express. There was a need for an unspoken unity, undefined, intangible and unspeakable but deeply felt and painfully needed. How do you paint after such horrors, how can your expression or emotions mean anything compared to that of others, those in camps, those on the front line, those butchered, tortured.
But at the same time the need for individual expression and the person becomes so important, to remind us that we are humans, individuals who think and feel, to acknowledge what has happened. We are not nations or soldiers or civilians or politicians, we are people, alone and vulnerable, trapped in our own thoughts, needing to reconcile what it means to be alive.