Surrealism remained a powerful element in bohemian art and culture long after it had lost its novelty, shine and new car smell. It remained an attractive option for leftist artists and writers who were ill at ease with the post-Trotsky Soviet Union cultural model.And with good reason to distrust ”Uncle Joe ”. Surrealist poetry and culture were definitely read by young people in the 1950s and 60s, who were searching for an alternative to the Rationalism of their time which was symbolized by automobile tailfins, the H-Bomb, conformity, and Madison Avenue for all practical purposes; The world of American Graffiti and Opie doing paint by numbers on Mayberry R.I.P. As surrealist poetry and writing lived on in this fashion, so did surrealist art even if it went through permutations.
As a main editor of the surrealist magazine VVV, Robert Motherwell, became a leading figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement. As well as painting, Motherwell was an articulate and tireless public speaker and his engaging and lucid writings on ”The New York School” helped facilitate the transition between surrealism and abstract expressionism into a relatively seamless act. Scholar Harold Rosenburg called the field ” action painting”. Although the latter school eschewed figurative elements, even in the off-kilter manner of a Magritte or a Dali, it retained the obsession with psychoanalysis. Where a surrealist painting might tend toward an open representation of Oedipal themes, for example, the abstract expressionist would dispense with the symbols and concentrate more on the raw energy generated by an inescapable neurosis.
Many American painters had read Freud and Jung. Jackson Pollack spent two years in psychoanalysis ( 1939-1941). The deep interest that early abstract expressionism showed in pre-conscious and unconscious images as the very root of art was not a simple mimicking of surrealism. The surrealist enemy from within, Andre Masson was an influence on the younger American abstract painters. He had tried to close the cultural gap between the illusions of urban modern man and the ancient murky imagery of prehistoric cultures . The recurrent content of myth from the caves of France to the native American legends of the Navajo; mythical imagery based on the dynamic of love-hate. Masson linked the view that all histories from post-modern to antiquity are essentially myths of progress that misleadingly imply that humanity is bound and destined for a messianic deliverance through a collective fate.
The lesson implied being that humankind’s recurring calamities, whether Rwanda or a Wall Street collapse, are never of a metaphysical nature, but rather a consequence of particular events. In fact, thinkers like Masson imparted to the Abstracts the view that we have always been living in the end of days, probably since day 1 in year 3 and don’t trust anyone who says… ”( J.C. ) told us to be watching. He didn’t tell us to set a date, but he did give us clear signs, and we see clearer signs than we did one year ago and the signs have increased tremendously since….” Thus,in the extreme view, most action can be traumatic, endlessly meaningless, and time seems to stand still; resolution is endlessly deferred and no progress can ever be made. We wait without hope.
Mark Rothko in 1943 declared his belief that ” the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless” He was appealing to the kind of archetypical imagery that Masson’s paintings of massacres, labyrinths, totems and denial of the other, had involved since the end of the 1920′s. This was D.H. lawrence’s ”knowledge of the blood” given pictorial form.”Whereas Conrad despairs at the loss of an underlying unity that would illuminate daily life, and whereas Woolf relies heavily on immediate sensory experience, Lawrence glimpses something beyond the mind that knowledge cannot reveal but that intuition-residing in the blood, “where we have our strongest self-knowledge…For Lawrence, to be one with this darkness that grounds human existence is to turn the mind away from itself and back toward the body from which the mind arose before it became conscious of itself.”
Robert Hughes: ”Pollack’s drip technique used to be treated as a joke, as though he was out of control, but he wasn’t. The drips of paint were spontaneous but they fell just where he wanted them, building the surface into a web of skeins and subtle energies working across the whole canvas. Pollack once declared that he wanted to become nature. What did he mean? That he wanted to work parallel with its variety, its unpredictability and above all its vitality. He had a very light hand. Sometimes, as in Blue Poles, you might be looking at a sort of abstract Tiepolo, the same kind of airy light and spritely drawing. This nervous energy of Pollack’s expanding under strict control seems to refute the picture of him as a rip-roaring wildcatter from middle America. Only intelligence, allied to a deep sense of the natural world, can produce work like this.”
In light of WWII and the Nazi atrocities,Robert Hughes stated by the war’s end, when the entire world realized the extent of the death camps, that there was a belief and there was no testimony that art could give that could rival the evidence of the photograph. Any distortion of the human body that an artist might make after 1945 was going to have to bear comparison with what the Nazis had done to real bodies, and very few expressionist paintings could stand this strain.