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The Power of Images: Abstract Art, MoMA and the Cold War


Both the subject of caricatures and a point of contention in the bitter feuds accompanying Modernism's forward march, Abstract Expressionism is today considered to be the first great post-war movement in American art that made the US into a cultural world power. Yet the works of Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, which can now be seen in the opulent exhibition "The MoMA in Berlin," also provoked fierce debate in their own country. Were they the evidence of Communism's decay? Or did they reflect art's freedom as a counter-model to the Socialist Realism of the Soviet regime? The political events of the forties and fifties are implicit in the history of Abstract Expressionism. Harald Fricke on patriotism, Western myths, and the triumph of Action Painting.


Jackson Pollocks "Number 1" (1948)
exhibition view "Das MoMA in Berlin",
Neue Nationalgalerie. © Photo: Jens Liebchen



Oddly familiar scenes take place on the lower level of the New National Gallery, where most of the paintings of the exhibition "The MoMA in Berlin" can be seen. On the way to the section Abstract Expressionists - Field Painting, the number of viewers thins considerably. For a brief moment, it becomes quiet on the path leading through the 200 masterpieces. A dozen pairs of eyes wander nervously from Helen Frankenthaler's painting Jacob's Ladder from 1957, vibrating faintly in rust-red and bottle-green pastel hues, to the shreds of yellow and orange on Clyfford Still's large-scale Painting 1944-N, which flit across the otherwise almost completely black panel. Here, the world of art is non-objective, consisting entirely of movement: an endless trail of luster, vibration, and suspension. But does the triumph of the free surface suffice to compete with the Picassos, Matisses, Rousseaus, or Chagalls, so coveted by the masses crowding around them only two rooms down? Apparently not. Not even in the case of Jackson Pollock.

Helen Frankenthaler: Jacob's Ladder, 1957

Many visitors stand there for a few seconds, somewhat confused, to look at the tangle of lines and islands of color the legendary American painter fused together in works bearing titles such as Full Fathom Five (1947) or Number 1, which was painted in 1948. In certain areas, prints of Pollock's hand can be recognized, as the works weren't created on an easel, but were spread out on the studio floor to enable the artist to work large-scale, using his entire body. Pollock turned "Action Painting" into a new working principle of modern art, and painting became a performance of the "subconscious," as he called it. To his mind, the paintings were an experience of inner processes, expressions of his perception of time: "concentrated, fluid," as he wrote in a statement in 1950 - landscapes of the psyche.

Jackson Pollock: Gothic, 1944


An entire art historical repertoire was implemented for these investigations: the colors of the Fauves, the dissolution of space in Cubism, the "spiritual organization" of the visual, as propagated by Kandinsky. Despite this, some visitors have a hard time with this electrically charged and highly unique pictorial language. Without taking off his headphones for the audio tour, a man turned to his partner and admitted, "You can't really see what it's supposed to be." Then, the two move on wordlessly, to a glass case containing the filigree sculpture Gibraltar, made by Alexander Calder in 1936. In moments like these, one recalls the profound lack of understanding that modern art can still inspire to this day.

Ad Reinhardt: Number 107, 1950



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