National Book Month: Reading (and Encountering) Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism, the post-World War II art movement whose works are often typified by large canvases covered in raucous line or bold swaths of color—and sometimes both, has enjoyed renewed interest lately. Not that the movement and the individual artists who created its landmark paintings have ever drifted far from the public’s collective consciousness. Twelve years ago, Jackson Pollock was the subject of a critically acclaimed feature film starring Ed Harris as the talented and tormented artist. This month in Washington, D.C., a critical moment of creativity in the life of Mark Rothko is examined in the Arena Stage production of “Red.”

In 2010, the Postal Service got in on the action by issuing a pane of stamps honoring ten Abstract Expressionists—Pollock and Rothko, along with their contemporaries Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Joan Mitchell, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Arshile Gorky. Featuring reproductions of paintings by each artist, the stamps were arranged dynamically on the pane as though they were hanging on a gallery wall.

Last year, the Museum of Modern Art showcased works by these and other artists in a popular exhibition, “Abstract Expressionist New York.” I didn’t hesitate to add curator Ann Temkin’s highly readable catalog to my library.

In Fall 2011, MoMA singled out Willem de Kooning for a career retrospective. “Asheville,” the painting featured on the de Kooning stamp, was one of many artworks included in the blockbuster exhibition, also accompanied by a scholarly catalog with dozens of beautiful painting reproductions.

Joan Mitchell, the lone female artist included on 2010’s Abstract Expressionist pane, got her due as the subject of Patricia Albers well-received biography, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter. Although I’ve always been drawn to her paintings, halfway through the book I have a deeper appreciation for and understanding of the artist. Mitchell’s estate was instrumental in guiding the Postal Service’s selection of her lyrical “La Grande Vallée 0” for the stamp.

Clyfford Still is my favorite Abstract Expressionist artist. His expansive paintings remind me both of the benevolent beauty and sublime forces of nature. In November 2011, the long-awaited Clyfford Still Museum opened in Denver, Colorado. The museum is all Still, all the time. Drawings, paintings, and even sculpture tell the story of artistic development and refinement of a signature style of painting. The museum’s catalog also describes the bequest that brought Still’s significant collection of paintings to Denver, as well as the elegant and sympathetic building designed by Portland, Oregon-based Allied Works Architecture and its principal architect Brad Cloepfil.

The Postal Service’s inspired Abstract Expressionist stamps, and the books mentioned here, are suitable substitutes for the real things—paintings of uncommon beauty and imagination. But I recommend going wherever and whenever you can to see the artwork in “real-life.” And keep the stamps and books as mementos of your encounters with art.

The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb, 1944 by Arshile Gorky. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Achilles, 1952 by Barnett Newman. © 2009 The Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1948-C, 1948 by Clyfford Still. © Clyfford Still Estate

Orange and Yellow, 1956 by Mark Rothko. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

La Grande Vallée 0, 1983 by Joan Mitchell. Private Collection. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation and Edward Tyler Nahem.

Convergence, 1952 by Jackson Pollock. © 2009 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Golden Wall, 1961 by Hans Hofmann. © 2009 The Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Asheville, 1948 by Willem de Kooning. © 2009 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 34, 1953-54 by Robert Motherwell. © Dedalus Foundation/VAGA, New York, NY

Romanesque Façade, 1949 by Adolph Gottlieb. © Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/VAGA, New York, NY

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