American Abstract Painting – Repetition or Difference?

Posted: February 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

First-Wave (European) Abstraction


Wassily Kandinsky
Composition VII (1913)


Kasimir Malevich
Suprematism (1917)


Piet Mondrian
Composition of Red, Blue, Yellow, and White: Nom II


Second-Wave (American) Abstraction


Arshile Gorky
The Leaf of The Artichoke Is An Owl (1941)

Pollock; Autumn Rhythm, 1950

Jackson Pollock
Autumn Rhythm (1950)


Willem de Kooning
Two Women in The Country (1954)

Kline, Untitled 1957.jpg

Franz Kline
Untitled (1957)

  1. Ana Miranda says:

    I would definitely say that the Kandinsky painting looks more similar to the American abstract paintings, but other than that I would say there is quite a difference between the two. I feel like the European paintings look more precise and clean than the American ones which is sometimes how we explain the difference between Europeans and Americans. But I would argue that European abstract art uses more shapes and colors while the Americans will use more texture.

    • That the American abstract painting look wilder than the European predecessors was something not lost on Harold Rosenberg. This recognition is one of the crucial points in his debate with Clement Greenberg, especially when it comes to the work of Jackson Pollock. We’ll discuss that in class next time.

  2. Nat says:

    I love Autumn Rhythm. It was one of my best friends’ favorite paintings, and I think it’s also the Pollack painting that appears in the movie Ex Machina in a very interesting scene.

    • I’m glad you have a favorite. Most persons think all Pollocks looks the same. But there are crucial difference between his various canvasses that can be used to reconstruct the history of his artist life and creative development. We’ll get into Pollock in more detail next time.

  3. Ivan Lee says:

    Although at first glance to many, the styles of of the two different waves of abstraction seem to mirror each other, I would argue that the language and composition of which the pieces are created by are in fact different. Where as the first wave of Abstraction seems to focus on cleaner strokes and more defined shapes, the second wave has a more “frantic” appearance, with fast, bristled or wet strokes, as if the painting captures the process of painting itself. Furthermore, the colors of the “European” wave of Abstraction seem to be more vibrant and defined rather than the mixed and somewhat muted colors of the “American” movement. I don’t presume to understand the two different languages, but I still can see some of the differences between the two, similar to a way that a person could see the difference between Chinese and Korean characters without understanding the languages.

    • I’d agree. The European painting probably appeared highly and inexplicably spontaneous to viewers in their day. But the pace of painting definitely picks up in the second half of the 20th century. This is indexed by the look of the American Action Painters. As should be obvious from the title of his essay, Harold Rosenberg will weigh in on this issue. I should assert that he will approved of all the American painters I have posted above, though he will also be interested in identifying what makes them great, as opposed to the ‘average American abstract painter’. Sounds odd to phrase it that way, but it’s precisely the point he wishes to make. We will discuss this in class on Wednesday.

  4. Natalie Van Orden says:

    I also notice that whether the artists considered what mood their colors and lines would produce or not, the European Abstraction is using brighter, warmer colors, and more clear-cut shapes that give off a sense of order and beauty. The colors and lines used in the American Abstraction paintings are darker and seem to even clash in certain paintings, and the strokes look scribbled as if they were made quickly and intensely.
    I personally prefer the scribbled and sometimes unsettling paintings of American Abstraction, but I have known friends to write off the second-wave paintings for being easy to emulate, and for not expressing beauty like “real art” should, but who appreciate and respect first-wave abstraction paintings.

    • Natalie Van Orden says:

      I’m not sure the mood difference is always there between the two waves, but I see it specifically in the examples posted here. Maybe it’s just a byproduct of what Ivan is saying about the paintings “capturing the process of painting itself,” and therefore not being planned out with color and shape composition (leading to more clashing).

    • You’ve hit on the most crucial elements of Rosenberg’s arguments. We’ll get into the details in class. For now, let it suffice me to say that Rosenberg believes there is an important distinction between European and American abstract painting. yet, despite the important distinction, he does not consider all American abstraction to be equally important. I hope to discuss tomorrow his criteria of evaluation.

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