If you visit a museum with a collection of modern and contemporary art, you’re likely to see works that sometimes elicit the response, “My cat could make that, so how is it art?” A movement called Abstract Expressionism, also known as the New York School, gets this reaction particularly often. Abstract Expressionism started in 1943 and developed after the end of World War II. It’s characterized by large, primarily abstract paintings, all-over compositions without clear focal points, and sweeping swaths of paint embodying and eliciting emotions.
The group of artists who are considered Abstract Expressionists includes Barnett Newman with his existential zips, Willem de Kooning, famous for his travestied women, Helen Frankenthaler, who created soak-stains, and others. But perhaps the most famous, influential, and head-scratching one was Jackson Pollock. Most of his paintings are immediately recognizable. They feature tangled messes of lines of paint bouncing around in every direction on the canvas. And sure, these fields of chaos are big and impressive, but what’s so great about them? Didn’t he just drip the paint at random? Can’t anyone do that?
Well, the answer to these questions is both yes and no. While Pollock implemented a technique anyone is technically capable of regardless of artistic training, only he could have made his paintings. This paradox relates to his work’s roots in the Surrealist automatic drawings of André Masson and others. These Surrealists supposedly drew directly from the unconscious to reveal truths hidden within their minds.
Occasionally, instead of picturing something and then drawing it, they let their hands move automatically and would later tease out familiar figures that appeared in the scribbles. And after Pollock moved away from representation, he made drip, or action, paintings following a similar premise, though he developed a signature technique and never looked for images or messages hidden in the works.
First, he took the canvas off of the easel and laid it on the floor, a subversive act in itself. Then, in a controlled dance, he stepped all around the canvas, dripping industrial paint onto it from stirrers and other tools, changing speed and direction to control how the paint made contact with the surface. These movements, like the Surrealist scribbles, were supposedly born out of Pollock’s subconscious. But unlike the Surrealists, whose pictures represented the mind’s hidden contents, Pollock’s supposedly made physical manifestations of his psyche. His paintings are themselves signatures of his mind. In theory, anyone could make a painting that is an imprint of their mind. So why is Pollock so special?
Well, it’s important to remember that while anyone could have done what he did, he and the rest of the New York School were the ones who actually did it. They destroyed conventions of painting that had stood for centuries, forcing the art world to rethink them entirely. But one last reason why Jackson Pollock’s work has stayed prominent stems from the specific objects he made, which embody fascinating contradictions.
For instance, while Pollock’s process resulted in radically flat painted surfaces, the web of painted lines can create the illusion of an infinite layered depth when examined up close. And the chaos of this tangled mess seems to defy all control, but it’s actually the product of a deliberate, though not pre-planned, process.
These characteristics made Pollock into a celebrity, and within art history, they also elevated him to the mythified status of the genius artist as hero. So rather than evening the playing field for all creative minds, his work unfortunately reinforced a long-standing elitist aspect of art. Elitist, innovative, whatever you choose to call it, the history embedded in Abstract Expressionism is one that no cat, however talented, can claim.