American Figurative Expressionism and Its Roots

No specific criteria had to be met in order to join Rhino Horn; however, over and above being figurative artists, the majority of Rhino Horn members were distinguished as Figurative Expressionists, and through their Rhino Horn activities they preserved and continued the American Figurative Expressionist movement that had otherwise faltered in the late 1960s. Indeed, the majority of Rhino Horn artists were conscious proponents of the Figurative Expressionist mode, and Jay Milder, Peter Passuntino, Peter Dean, Benny Andrews, and Bill Barrell had been pioneers in the Second Generation East Coast movement during the mid to late 1950s.

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American Figurative Expressionism had initially arisen in the late 1930s, at which time the movement had been centered in Boston owing to the work done there primarily by members of a recent wave of German and European-Jewish immigrants. Key artists in the Boston Figurative Expressionist movement included David Aronson (b. 1923), Jack Levine (1915-2010), Hyman Bloom (1913-2009), and Karl Zerbe (1903-1972).  Zerbe, who taught at the Museum School in Boston at the time, set the tone for the movement. He and his cohorts openly challenged a statement issued by the Boston Institute of Modern Art under the heading ‘Modern Art’ and the American Public. The rebel artists felt that no doctrine should dictate what kinds of artwork they should create. Instead of following a set policy of their own, therefore, they engaged in a modernist dialogue that presented an alternative approach to the hegemonic European modernist and avant-garde painting of artists like Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Joan Miro (1893-1983), and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), that was making its way into the United States at the time. Check out Judith Bookbinder, Boston Modern (New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2005) Stylistically, the Boston Figurative Expressionists’ fluid brushwork and disinterest in the precise academic rendering of the subject contrasted on the one hand to the realistically rendered figurative paintings of the Social Realists and, on the other, to the technical precision of the avant-garde abstractionists. Instead, the work of this school showed affinities to the contemporary German strain of figurative painting in artists like Otto Dix (1891-1969), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), and Emil Nolde (1867-1956), both in style and in subject matter. Like their German counterparts, these American painters chose predominately to portray scenes and images in which they expressed profound emotions, horrors, and fantasies in a largely allegorical manner. Spiritual and fantastical scenes were thus common, and depictions of sublime religious displays, political satire, and treatments of the theme of human mortality by members of this school all contributed to the progression of figurative painting and to the evolving definition of modern humanist art. Among the more prominent artists of the Boston Figurative Expressionist movement, fascination with themes associated with spirituality, mystery, and mortality is perhaps most pervasive in the work of Hyman Bloom. Bloom’s subjects range from séances to bodies rotting in the morgue to Hassidic rabbis engaged in intense spiritual jubilation. The rendering of the figures expresses modern ideas of mortality in light of the horrific conditions that humankind experiences, but the images nevertheless convey an optimism that carries spiritual overtones. This quality may well derive from Bloom’s intense engagement with his own personal faith.

Dubbed the “greatest artist in America” in 1940, Bloom was once immensely well regarded in the U.S. art world, by fellow painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and the influential critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994). During the 1950s, however, figurative painting, which had established a reputation as a socially conscious art form in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, became a target for condemnation. Leading the anti-figurative criticism was Greenberg, who, as art critic and self-appointed arbiter of taste, helped to establish the widespread perception of the greater importance of Abstract Expressionism. A milestone in this regard was Greenberg’s 1955 essay “American Type Painting,” in which he promoted the work of such Abstract Expressionists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still as the next important stage in modernist art. Greenberg’s influence was established by his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in which he condemned the degrading influence on taste in modern consumer culture of the artifacts of mass production, and he equated the contemporary form of so-called academic art—i.e., traditional, representational figuration that followed the formal principles of the European schools. Collectively, he denigrated these cultural expressions and their influence under the German term kitsch, or “tasteless(ness):

“Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.”

Greenberg claimed that modernist art had become a tool of academics and argued that art, with its emphasis on rules, stripped art of its expression and value. Against this tendency he held up the work of the Avant-Garde artists, which he praised for its subjectivity and for its formal qualities, asserting that the medium and the form (line, shape, color, texture, etc.) were of utmost importance in a painting’s function and perception. Thus, when Pollock began to drip paint on canvas—a profoundly non-academic exercise that was followed by related work from other painters such as Robert Motherwell, Phillip Guston (1913-1980), Franz Kline (1910-1962), and Willem de Kooning, who painted through automatic spontaneity and force—the United States had found a style that was, for Greenberg, worthy of the label “expressionism” and worthy of the international attention that it soon began to receive. Abstract Expressionist painting signified freedom of expression. Yet even though this movement became the prominent style of American art in the mid-twentieth century, the message that Greenberg championed remained somewhat troubling to those outside the literary and artistic circles. In fact, Greenberg eventually withdrew his equation of academic art with kitsch, acknowledging a widespread sense that he had gone too far. Thus, while Abstract Expressionism represented a new way of painting that mainstream culture eventually embraced, there was a problematic relationship to the perception of Abstract Expressionist work that troubled not only many casual art viewers but certain artists as well. Decades later, for example, Irving Kriesberg (1919-2009) would point to a quality of “false modesty” in the myth that artists can be innocent tools of something vast and greater than themselves. This perspective contrasts sharply to Greenberg’s theory that Avant-Garde art was too innocent to be effectively used as propaganda. However, as the painter Leon Golub has stated,

“If an art becomes too ‘free-floating,’ that is, disassociated from representative contents, it may lose identification and become somewhat anonymous. Such anonymous objects have been functional in some collective cultures (wherein anonymity was a general social phenomenon integrated in the ways and means of the culture), but are certainly not in evidence in the highly mobile, individualistic Western world—although the aggregates of power (social) and the mechanics of modern society certainly predispose towards anonymous responses.”

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