Saturday, July 9, 2011

awesome americans #2: pollock & the abstract expressionists

i think i've mentioned, probably ad nauseum, how entranced i was by europe growing up.

i couldn't help it. fine arts, culture, classical music, cool watches - let's face it, europe had it, we didn't. and i wanted to be a painter. and everything about painting came from europe - all the classical masters, all the neo-classical masters, almost all of the important movements, the important artists, everything. what was the future for an unknown person from an unknown corner of an insignificant part of the world?

until i took an art history class in high school. and i learned about the movement of the twentieth century that - for the first time in recent history - brought the capital of art out of paris and to the new world, to new york city - abstract expressionism.

i'm not an art historian, nor critic. i can't really write an essay about abstract expressionism - well, not in any reasonable time frame, and not without a lot of cribbing off of online sources, like any undergrad worth his or hers salt these days. all i can really write about is my very personal experience with abstract expressionism - and with, most specifically, the paintings of jackson pollock.

in the classroom, i learned about this seminal movement that brought the art world over the pond and to our shores just following world war II, and i felt my self swell with - let's face it - pride, at being privy to the generation that can remember when we, we!, bested the europeans at art and brought it home to america. when we somehow breached the stronghold that was art in europe - both classical and revolutionary, training and boundary-breaking - all of that happened there, and yet in one cultural shift, we came up with something new, something different, something unique.

i dutifully studied the slides of the paintings on the screen, i looked at them in my textbook. i felt the pride, sure, and i felt the urge to continue working in the fine arts field, which was now - 50 years later - more balanced, with genius and new thoughts coming from all over the world - no longer just the domain of one country or continent. but the paintings on the screen didn't really move me. they didn't really sing, didn't rock me in my gut, didn't truly captivate. there was a secret part of me that couldn't dispute the dismissals about the movement: "a bunch of paint dripped on a canvas? any six-year-old can make that!"

finally, i went to new york city myself one day - and stood before one. and i got it. 

jackson pollock was born in wyoming and grew up all over the west. and when you look at one of his paintings, up close and personal...

what do you see? movement. wide open movement. huge arcs of the arm, paint coming off the end. sweeping motions. a person walking around, all sides, of a giant canvas. movement and motion and room to spread out, freedom to do something never done before. how he must have leaned over, to get at the center of the canvas. how he must have moved, faster and slower, stepping back to view it, stepping in to add more.

so, what's the connection, between place and art? between the wide open spaces of his childhood, and the wide open gestures of his art? i don't know for certain that the two are related. but it certainly made sense to me, that day, gazing up at something i'd never seen the likes of before. and to me it did seem related - the american west and this dancing canvas before me.

and i thought, well, that's one thing maybe we - or one of us, at least - got right.

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