The 20th Century was an important period in the history of visual art. It was during this time that practitioners from Europe and the United States sought to challenge the conventions of the field and explore new painting styles and techniques. Although there is no tying idea that resonates across all the painting genres that emerged during the 20th Century, similar historical events were responsible for influencing practice. With this in mind, this period has come to be identified as ‘modernism’. Some of the early practitioners under the modernist movement were Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp and were responsible for pioneering cubism and dada respectively. It was not until mid-century that Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol came to prominence. The two American artists are credited for their role in making two American movements – abstract expressionism and pop art, globally recognized. By paying special attention to the two artists’ work, this paper seeks to analyze abstract expressionism. The discussion provided will further discuss the manner in which the two artists represent the tension between individualism and mass production in their practice.
Abstract expressionism, otherwise known as the New York School, emerged in the 1940s. Like other modernist practitioners elsewhere in the world, abstract expressionists broke away from accepted conventions in both technique and subject matter. The idea was to produce work that reflected their individual psyches. One characteristic unique with abstract expressionists is that they valued spontaneity and improvisation, something which explains the rather haphazard manner in which they used the brush to express themselves on the canvas (Paul, 2004). The other aspect that made their art unique is that they placed important value on the process. Abstract expression emerged as a response to a number of events that were occurring in society at the time. The most significant events were the aftermath of the Great Depression and the exposure and assimilation of European modernism in America (Paul, 2004 ).
Pop art, on the other hand, emerged in the 1950s in both America and Britain before reaching its peak in the 1960s. As with preceding movements, pop art emerged as a revolt against the dominant approaches to visual art and traditional concepts on what art should be (Sooke, 2016). Practitioners of this movement were opposed to the ideals held by museums and art schools and instead sought inspiration from popular sources like movies, pop music, product packaging, advertisements, and comic books (Eimert, 2013). Pop artists used impersonal and rather monotonous imagery in order to move away from the ideas of self-expression held strongly by abstract expressionists (Sooke, 2016). Therefore, while abstract expressionism advocated on the expression of personal feelings and personal symbolism, pop art was interested in mass production, in compliance with the conventions of the American capitalist culture.
The concepts highlighted above can be seen in the works of Pollock and Warhol. Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 (1950) conveys the artist’s yearning to express himself, unbound by traditionally accepted painting techniques. The artist achieved this composition by pouring, splashing, and flicking enamel paint onto the canvas. With paints of varying density, the artist achieves a composition with muted monochromatic colors and with minimal reference to formal elements and principles of design. The gigantic piece stands at 2.7 m x 5.31 m, which allowed Pollock to express the freedom provided to him by abstract expressionism.
Figure 1: Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31
In Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), Andy Warhol portrays the range of products offered by Campbell’s Soup Company. The artist uses synthetic polymer paint to depict each of the company’s 32 product offerings, each on its own canvas. As with his other artworks, this composition was inspired by consumer culture and the items he encountered on a daily basis (Sooke, 2016). It is important to note that, although the images resemble print advertisements, Warhol hand-painted the entire composition, using repetition to create a uniform composition. He keenly repeated each object across the different canvases, only applying a variation on the label of each can. The importance of repetition to his compositions, as inspired by consumer culture was further portrayed in his decision to adopt printmaking techniques shortly after exhibiting this painting. This would allow him to produce work that resembled advertisements. Evidently, as a pop artist, Andy Warhol sought to depict the impact that consumerism had in inspiring his art, unlike the likes of Jackson Pollock who sought to express themselves with their art.
Figure 2: Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans
As observed in this discussion, the role of society and the role of art in society had an influence on the different practitioners of the 20th Century. While abstract expressionists sought to produce art that reflected their individual psyches, pop artists sought inspiration from consumer products and replicated them in their art in order to attach new meaning to art as a discipline. These ideas are conveyed in Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. Ultimately, both artists portrayed that 20th Century art practice could not be tied to a common theme, as artists from different periods of the century derived inspiration from different thematic concepts.
Eimert, D. (2013). Art and architecture of the 20th century. New York: Parkstone International.
Paul, Stella. (October 2004). “Abstract Expressionism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm
Sooke, A. (2016). Pop art: A colourful history. London: Penguin Books.