During the early 1940s, many New York artists were tremendously affected by the political events of World War II (1939-45) and began to question the direction of their work. In 1967, Adolph Gottlieb, described the wartime period as one with a “sense of crisis. I felt I had to dig into myself, find out what it was I wanted to express.”
Many, including Aaron Siskind, found license to pursue more personal work through surrealism, a European art movement influenced by the new science of psychology. Surrealism developed in the aftermath of World War I (1914-18), originally as a literary philosophy. The surrealists rejected rational thought and many values of Western culture, believing these had led to an unprecedented violence. By 1939, many European surrealists had relocated to the U.S. to escape Hitler’s persecution and the war, and their work was widely exhibited in New York. As their American counterparts struggled to understand a level of brutality new in their experience, surrealism seemed increasingly relevant.
Artists of the New York School embraced the surrealists’ idea that the unconscious could be as great a force on life as the conscious. Ambiguous imagery drawn from the subconscious mind seemed much more attuned to modern realities. The New Yorkers were particularly interested in the surrealists’ notion of automatism, a kind of stream-of-consciousness writing. They saw in it a path to unpremeditated, spontaneous gestures and a method that could direct their work. Another key idea absorbed by New York artists from surrealism was the importance of subject matter, especially that which could express, in Barnett Newman’s words, “subjective thought, a feeling, a subjective idea.”
Both Newman and Gottlieb were longtime friends of Siskind, who came to know through them many other New York School painters, later to be called Abstract Expressionists. This gallery contains some of their formative works. In the adjacent gallery, their more familiar mature styles are represented.