Making Sense of Chaos

Undoubtedly, the Abstract Expressionists (or New York School, as they were also known) were influenced by Surrealism. In fact, the political unrest in 1930’s Europe drove several leading Surrealists across the pond to New York, where they exposed young American artists to their mad methods. The similarities between the two groups are clear to see—sometimes even striking, as in the examples below…

Left: Joan Miro, Peinture (Painting) (1927), National Galleries Scotland. Right: Arshile Gorky, The Limit (1947), Gagosian Gallery

The Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky had a seminal influence on Abstract Expressionism. His painting ‘The Limit’, 1947 (above right) is currently on display in the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy (until 2nd January 2017). But I don’t think you could be blamed for mistakenly attributing it—at least on first glance—to Joan Miró. The Spanish Surrealist’s voice echoes loudly. Holding it up alongside Miró’s ‘Peinture’, 1927 (above left), it feels almost like a game of spot the difference. I certainly don’t mean to belittle Gorky’s achievements—he does have a distinctive style that he took in different directions, and I happen to be a great fan of his work. But, in this instance, aside from the fact that the brushwork is a bit looser and the forms have drifted a little further from the moorings of tangible reality, Gorky has painted a Miró. The same biomorphic shapes and vaguely recognisable fragments, spotted with bright colours, float loosely on a muted surface.

Left: Andre Masson, Automatic Drawing (1924), MoMA. Right: Jackson Pollock, Echo:Number 25 (1951), MoMA

Likewise, the similarities between these next two examples far outweigh their differences. In ‘Automatic Drawing’, 1924 (above left), André Masson was playing with the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing to give expression to his unconscious. The same sinuous lines, tangled forms and manic energy appear in ‘Echo: Number 25’, 1951, (above right) by that titan of the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock, who was so famed for his spontaneous ‘mind-writing’ paintings through which flowed the artist’s inner rhythms.

I believe, however, that the Abstract Expressionists’ affinity with the Surrealists ran deeper than simply meeting them and being introduced to their work. It might not have been Miró’s voice echoing through Gorky or the energy of Masson’s drawings wriggling its way into Pollock’s mark-making, so much as a common impulse that found expression in both creative groups. The two movements were different iterations of the same existential anxiety, a variation on the same theme. That is why Surrealism resonated so powerfully with the artistic consciousness of post-war, post-Depression America.

There were, of course, important differences—not least the fact that the Surrealists couldn’t resist the temptation to impose some sort of rational order on their messy squiggles, whereas the unbridled splodges and splashes of the Abstract Expressionists were boldly left in their raw state, and on a vast scale. However, the two groups were grappling with the same emotions. They were both dealing with the disorientation and angst that ensue from large-scale wars and sweeping economic upheaval. What good did rational thought do? Look what it had led to: failing economies and the mechanical slaughter of millions. The answer, for both groups of artists, was to relinquish control. They let go and let loose. Conscious inhibitions were bypassed, materials were left to freely dribble and drawings became scribbles. The chaos of the world was unleashed onto their canvases, and no sense was to be made of any of it.

Jackson Pollock, Male and Female (1942-43), Philadelphia Museum of Art

Except, perhaps, by groping in the dark for myths. After all, since time immemorial, people have made recourse to myths in order to better understand the mysteries around them. Emerging from the ineffable depths of the unconscious, myths are beacons of harmony that, it is hoped, might offer some guidance in navigating the wild external world. Grown from chaos internal, they are grafted onto chaos external. And so it is that we find in the Surrealists and the Abstract Expressionists alike a preoccupation with archetypes: Dali’s Narcissus, de Kooning’s Pink Angels, Masson’s Gradiva, Pollock’s Male and Female, Ernst’s Birth of a Galaxy, Rothko’s Archaic Idol. By this point, though, myth making was less a collective effort than a personal project.

Willem de Kooning, Pink Angels (1945), ArtStack

As artists have gone from being illustrators of established mythologies and religious narratives to being idea-generating inventors of novelty, they have shifted some of that creative burden onto the audience—and the Abstract Expressionists (brazenly) offloaded more than the Surrealists did. No longer do viewers passively receive but they are expected to actively engage their imagination. They have to work hard with Surrealist works, and even harder with Abstract Expressionism, to tease out the meanings.

Both groups invoked the unconscious, but where the Surrealists tried to fill in some of the blanks, the Abstract Expressionists left them wide open.

(Hero image: Arshile Gorky, Water of the Flowery Mill (1944), The Metropolitan Museum of Art)



Abstract Expressionism, Royal Academy, London

24 September 2016 – 2 February 2017


Further reading

Robert Hobbs

JSTOR: ‘Early Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism’, Vol. 45, No. 4, The Visionary Impulse: An American Tendency (Winter, 1985), pp. 299-302


Tate: Surrealism

Abstract Expressionism

Tate: Abstract Expressionism


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