Post-Painterly Abstraction
Characteristics of Second Generation Abstract Expressionism.

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Where (1960)
Magna on canvas
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
By Moris Louis, a key participant in the
1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction show
curated by Clement Greenberg in
Los Angeles.

Post-Painterly Abstraction (c.1955-65)

The phrase "Post-painterly abstraction" was first used in 1964 by the art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94) as the title for an exhibition of 20th century paintings he curated for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show, featuring abstract art by contemporary American and Canadian artists - all second generation exponents of Abstract Expressionism - subsequently travelled to the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, and the Art Museum of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). Greenberg borrowed the word "painterly" from the German art historian Heinrich Wolfflin (1864-1945), who employed it in his book Principles of Art History, to mean "the blurred, broken, loose definition of colour and contour."

The Meschers (1951)
Museum of Modern Art, NY.
By Ellsworth Kelly, an early exponent of
hard-edge painting in the 1940s and 50s.

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Umbrella Term For Numerous Individual Styles

In an article for the exhibition catalogue, Greenberg discussed a number of differing styles and tendencies in contemporary American art. In particular, he distinguished the style he called Painterly Abstraction (normally called abstract expressionism) from several different styles that followed - which he dubbed Post-Painterly Abstraction.

Post-Abstract Expressionism

All the above individual styles emerged out of the dominant school of abstract expressionist painting during the late 1950s, early 1960s, and in some ways reacted against it - or at least were precipitated by it. As a general rule, the new abstract painters rejected the emotionalism of Abstract Expressionism, and also its expressive gestural brushwork, in favour of cooler, more anonymous styles of painting. And while their paintings shared some of the visual characteristics of works by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, they did not share their predecessors' views on the spirituality and meaning of art.


What is Post-Painterly Abstraction: Definition/Characteristics

Greenberg himself described post-painterly abstraction as being typically linear in design, bright in colour, devoid of detail and incident, and inclined to draw the eye beyond the limits of the canvas. Above all it was anonymous in execution, reflecting the painter's desire to abandon the drama and emotionalism of the older forms of Abstract Expressionism.

Contemporary Art Trend

In simple terms, Greenberg was highlighting a trend away from gestural-type abstract expressionism - including the gesturalism of Willem de Kooning, the "action-painting" technique of Jackson Pollock, and the use of textural effects - towards greater use of broad areas of unmodulated colour. Greenberg himself was a formalist: he believed that the formal qualities of a painting (line, shape, colour) are primary (and self-sufficient for its appreciation), whereas its emotional, representational, ethical or social aspects are secondary, even redundant. Because Post-painterly abstractionists tended to avoid emotionalism, and followed a more anonymous, non-subjective aesthetic, they clearly shared the same view of the primacy of formal elements, and thus met with his approval.

Post-Painterly Abstraction Styles & Artists

The styles embraced by this term include Hard-Edge Painting, illustrated by the works of abstract painters like Al Held (b.1928), Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923), Frank Stella (b.1936), and Jack Youngerman (b.1926); Colour Stain Painting, exemplified by Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928), Joan Mitchell (1926-92), and Jules Olitski (b.1922); Washington Colour Painters, such as Gene Davis (1920-85), Morris Louis (1912-62) and Kenneth Noland (b.1924); Systemic Painting, which covered the work of Josef Albers (1888-1976), Ad Reinhardt (1913-67), as well as Stella and Youngerman; Lyrical Abstraction, including works by Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Frankenthaler and others; Colour Field Painting, illustrated by the works of pioneers Barnett Newman (1905-70), Mark Rothko (1903-70), Clyfford Still (1904-80), and Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), as well as Frankenthaler, Noland, Stella, Olitski, Morris Louis, Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93); and Minimal Painting which referred to pictures by Robert Mangold (b.1937), Agnes Martin (1912-2004), Brice Marden (b.1938), and Robert Ryman (b.1930).

Fragmentation and Anti-Formalism

Alas, the 1960s soon undermined Greenberg's concept of Post-painterly abstraction. If there had been a single identifiable trend, it quickly fragmented into a series of competing schools, as painters pursued their separate goals. Furthermore, despite some formalist success stories like Frank Stella's Shaped Canvas genre, which proclaimed the "objecthood" of the picture, by 1973, the formalism of such styles as Colour Field Painting was soon replaced by the Anti-Formalism of movements like Pop Art and Minimalism. This point (early 1970s) is traditionally seen as the hinge between Modern Art (c.1850-1970) and Postmodernist Art (early 1970s on). For analysis of some of the great works of Post Painterly Abstraction, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Developments in Europe

If Post-painterly abstraction sounds complicated, try reading about concurrent abstract expressionist movements in Europe, such as Art Informel (1940s, 1950s), its sub-variants Tachisme (late 1940s, 1950s) Lyrical Abstraction (1945-60), and the independent COBRA group (1948-51).

Paintings by exponents of Post-painterly abstraction can be seen in the best art museums around the world. For collections in the United States, please see: Art Museums in America.

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