In theory, a loyal, dedicated artist’s model should take exception to the Abstract Expressionists, right? It would be a justified reaction. After all, we are the subjects for figurative art, and the abstract expressionists were almost doctrinaire in their “anti-figurative” painting philosophy. You couldn’t find a group of artists who had less use for us, who declared us more irrelevant, than those guys. Is it legitimate grounds for hurt feelings? Sure, why not? It is a major dis 😥
The time was postwar America, and the abstract expressionist movement took the art world by storm. It was an avante-garde, largely male-driven group with a reputation as nonconformist rebels looking to shake things up in a repressive, conformist era. Based here in New York City, the abstract expressionists invited both fawning admirers and harsh detractors. And they managed to put art models on the unemployment line – temporarily at least – until we got “resurrected” in the 1960s (thank you Philip Pearlstein!).
For the record, I AM a fan of abstract expressionism. A big fan. Have been since I was a teenager. Ah, but I wasn’t an art model back then! So the question is this: has my career as an art model altered my opinion of abstract expressionism? Honestly, not much. Just a little. Because of faithful allegiance to my profession, a tiny part of my soul harbors some resentment. I”ll find myself in MoMA, for example, staring at a Franz Kline, and I start to feel slightly . . . offended. I think, “To hell with you, man! Didn’t use a life subject?? What the hell is a ‘color field’? Go screw yourself!”. Then I give it the finger, strip naked, and security comes and escorts me out of the building 😆 It sounds rather petty and juvenile, I know. But what can I say? I’m proud to be an art model, and no one likes to feel unwanted. Anyway, my bitter rant only lasts about ten seconds. Then I come to my senses and go back to just enjoying the art.
“Abstract Art” and “Abstract Expressionism” are not necessarily interchangeable terms. Most modern art IS abstract art. An artist can take a real life subject – a figure, a still life, a bird, whatever – and then abstract it (think Picasso and Matisse). The subject is always visually referenced in the work, even though it isn’t represented realistically. In some cases, if the abstraction is very heavy, the subject is barely recognizable, but still it’s there. It has to be, because the artist began with a real “thing”.
The abstract expressionists, however, went beyond that. They painted nothing that was derived from actual life. Instead, the application of the paint itself, whether through strokes, drippings, or splatterings – the very act of creation – is the focus of the work. Rather than a painting OF a subject, the painting itself IS the subject. This is not to say that abstract expressionist paintings are of “nothing”. They aren’t. The subjects may be events, emotions, actions, conflicts. The point is that they originate not from life but from the artist’s mind. It’s a key difference.
Here is a classic example of true “abstract expressionism” from its famous poster boy. By Jackson Pollock, this is Autumn Rhythm:
Some people argue that Pollock owed his entire career to the prominent art critic Clement Greenberg. A hugely influential man, Greenberg was among the critics who championed abstract expressionism and elevated the movement to great heights. Jackson Pollock was his darling, and that’s fine with me. What’s not fine with me, however, is that Greenberg ridiculed and discouraged the few abstract expressionists who occasionally chose to bring figurative elements to their work. And that’s my beef with the guy (like he’d give a shit what I think!).
Willem de Kooning was one of those abstract expressionists who sometimes created figurative works. He did a whole series in fact, entitled Woman. They are considered grotesque and misogynistic by some, powerful and provocative by others. Heck, I’m just glad he painted a woman!
This is de Kooning’s Woman III, from 1953. Certainly this image is hostile, almost violent. But I like it. I like de Kooning generally, as he is one of the most widely respected and admired of all the abstract expressionists.
Pollock and de Kooning are usually the first names that come to mind when we think of abstract expressionism. But there were many others, such as the aforementioned Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and even a couple of ladies, like Lee Krasner (Pollock’s wife) and, one of my favorite abstract expressionists, the wonderful Helen Frankenthaler (Motherwell’s wife).
Another highly acclaimed abstract expressionist was Hans Hofmann. This is his painting The Conjuror, from 1959:
I must include an image by my ethnic “brother”, my Armenian compatriot and genocide survivor, the great Arshile Gorky. Chronologically, he was one of the earliest abstract expressionists, and one of the absolute best.
This is Gorky’s Agony, 1947:
So in the spirit of goodwill, this proud, hardworking art model would like to break bread and offer a retroactive “pardon” to the abstract expressionists and, yes, even to that assclown Clement Greenberg. Fellas, here it is: regarding your disdain for human life subjects, your refusal to pay an art model for her valuable time, your attempts to deny our artistic purpose, and your utter disregard for faces and flesh, I pronounce you officially exonerated for your “crimes”. The truth is, I like your paintings, so I guess all is forgiven 🙂 Peace, boys.