The Triumph of American Painting – a book review
A few month’s back, in my quest to learn more about the Abstract Expressionist movement, I purchased a recent book by Irving Sandler. The description of that book intrigued me in that Sandler would be taking a second look at the movement – having written a definitive account of the history of the Abstract Expressionists, back in 1970. I thought it would be best to first read his first account before learning how his interpretation might have changed with 4o years of thought and observation. As luck would have it, that latest book sat on my “to read” pile and in the meantime I found a copy of his first book at a library.
I enjoyed this book. It was generally accessible and definitely educational. I have read a few biographies of key Abstract Expressionists and have become familiar with the painting style of maybe half a dozen of these artists but I never felt that I had the big picture. I had questions like: where and why did this movement come into being?, what were the influences (from without and within)? and what was the common thread that brought a number of artists with quite diverse approaches to their art, to be lumped into this movement called abstract expressionism? Having read The Triumph of American Painting, I feel that I got answers to those questions.
The 300 page book is divided into 20 chapters and includes a comprehensive bibliography and a section with short biographies of fifteen of the painters. Just over half of the chapters are devoted to individual artists, while the remaining chapters are of a more general nature, with titles such as The Great Depression, The Gesture Painters, The Color Field Painters, The Abstract Expressionist Scene, 1950-52: Success and Dissolution. The artists to whom individual chapters are devoted are:
- Arshile Gorky
- William Baziotes
- Jackson Pollock
- Willem de Kooning
- Hans Hoffmann
- Clyfford Still
- Mark Rothko
- Barnett Newman
- Adolph Gottlieb
- Robert Motherwell, and
- Ad Reinhardt
The book contains many images, photos of paintings, but unfortunately they are all in black and white. It would have been nice to see these works in full color but surprisingly, these monotone images do still convey a strong sense of the energy and style of the paintings. The only little gripe I had with this book and specifically the images, is a lack of indication of the size of each work – especially given how important this element was to a number of the abstract expressionists.
Through the course of the book Sandler describes the origins of the movement from the politics and philosophies of the time, through the drive to create art that would be distinct from the European traditions and particularly the influence of Paris. I learned how abstract expressionism grew out of cubism and surrealism and strove to be something distinct from these movements and how abstract expressionism could be broken down into two main branches: gesture and color field. The final part of the book describes the eventual recognition of the movement in the 1950’s, after a long struggle for acceptance.
As mentioned the author, Sandler revisited the movement in his 2009 book, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: a Reevaluation. I am looking forward to reading that book and when I do, I will pass along my thoughts.