Abstraction in Play
The mid-20th century witnessed the traumatic consequences of global industrial warfare as well as oppressive state control of the rights and freedoms of individuals. Disillusioned with these conditions, some artists called for a break from the past. They rejected realist styles as too easily drafted for propaganda, and the ideas of most prewar avant-gardes were contaminated by association with cultures that had acted savagely against civilians.
An eclectic European coalition known loosely as art informel advanced the intuitive and spontaneous methods of art making championed by Surrealism, a prewar movement that continued to influence artists during the war and after. While many of these artists worked with paint and brush, others used found materials and nontraditional techniques that included manipulating, or even destroying, the surface of their compositions.
In the United States, a group of New York–based painters, many of whom trained with American realist artists but also with émigré Europeans, searched for alternatives to figurative art in the 1940s. They chose unusual materials and techniques that emphasized the physical act of painting and the materiality of paint itself. Prominent critics, referring to this new style variously as Abstract Expressionism, action painting, or the New York School, celebrated these painters as heroic. This elevation of the white male artist created an art historical narrative that was incomplete and restricted, however. Excluded were contemporaneous figurative works of art that engaged the ongoing struggle for racial equality, pioneering work by women and artists of color, and global histories of abstraction. New York may have been the center of gravity for abstract art, but other strains were growing in postwar Europe and beyond.