The story of 1950s art begins at the end of the Second World War, because it was such a rupture to the body of the world, that the post-war art beginnings extend from mid 1940s to the next decade. Slowly, as the world start recovering from the war trauma, new art movements used to develop worldwide. Major influences on the 1950s art were made by 1920s avant-garde movements, modernismsurrealism and abstract painting. There are only few art styles continued even throughout the period of the war, and those were withheld by individual practices of influential artists from pre-war era such as Pablo PicassoSalvador DaliMax ErnstMarcel Duchamp. For many artists, World Wars of 20th century brought the migration, and significant authors of 1950s decade were escaping Nazism in Europe by settling in United States, which make New York the world’s capital of art.

Hans Hartung -T1955 -Image courtesy of Widewalls and Hans Hertung

Cultural Panorama of 1950s Art

While the world was recovering from the war, two opponents derived from the ambivalent Allies of WW2 – Eastern, composed of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and Western bloc United States, its NATO allies and others. Basically world was separated on the supporters of one or another competitive unions. A big distinction was in their concepts of prosperity and politics, since Eastern bloc continued implementing revolutionary propaganda forming communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia, the Western bloc reached the state of developed capitalism, insisting on free market, commercial design, popular print and advertising. In 1950s, Soviet Union and United States entered the nuclear and space race, the decolonization of the Third World was blooming, and the Great Two competed for ideological predominance in those newly formed countries. As the culture is mighty tool for imprinting political ideology and/or economical agenda, art of the 1950s was one of the battlefields for the ultimate and long-lasting victory of communism or capitalism as the proposals for the New World Order. From one hand, Soviet Union and other communist regimes of the East showed lack of understanding for the art practices of Modernism, interpreting non-representative forms of art as incomprehensible for the proletariat, while United States’ government through funding and organization directly supported rise of abstract artto show progressive and liberating character of capitalist society. In forthcoming years, it turned out that the both of them was wrong, as the developed movements in 1960s and 1970s heavily criticized the 1950s art world.

propaganda posters 1950

Political propaganda: Atomic War 1950s, America under socialism.  Image courtesy of Widewalls

Abstract Expressionism as Synonym for 1950s Art

As complex art movement in late 1940s, abstract expressionism was logical continuation of the anti-figurative aesthetic of the European abstraction and Modernist styles. During and after the war, United States and especially New York became the gathering place of European artists, dealers and collectors escaping Nazi regimes. At the time, New York hosted Yves TanguyMax Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, Marcel DuchampAndré MassonAndré BretonMarc Chagall and Piet Mondrian and became art metropolis. Thus, American Abstract expressionism brought together influences of SurrealismCubismFauvism, and early Modernism as well as notable Bauhaus influences. Even though Abstract Expressionism movement was wide mainstream, it could be roughly divided between two major painting sub genres – Action Painting and Color Field Painting.

Action Painting

Action Paining is painting movement widespread in New York art scene from late 1940s to mid 1960s and is often seen as synonym of the abstract expressionism. The movement shifted the focus of the painting objects (finished artworks) to the very painting process and act of the creation. While Jackson Pollock insisted on physical act of painting, approaching the concept of Breton’s automatic writing, Willem de Kooning created the series of violated figurative paintings and Franz Kline focused on esthetic of the actual brush strokes in his calligraphic abstraction.

Willem De Kooning Ganesvoort Steet 1949 detail Action Painting

Willem-De-Kooning-Steet 1949.  Image courtesy of Widewall

Color Field Painting

Another style of abstract art, born in New York scene of 1950s was Color Field painting, which is largely influenced by European Modernism and its sublime geometric abstraction. As the name suggests, color was the main subject of the paintings, liberated from any objective context or the meaning in favor of expression of the sublime human emotions. One of the most significant authors within the movement was Mark Rothko who even denied his connection to abstract art, insisting on mystic spirituality of his canvases, while Clifford Stills landscapes contained primordial reminiscence on nature or human history. Robert Motherwell painted great open fields of colors, composited with lines and shapes and Barnett Newman tried to reflect Jewish history and tradition trough the language of pure colors.

Other Significant Movements of the 50s Art Scene

There are many art movements had started in 1950s and reached its peek in decades after. Notably the most important movement was abstract expressionism, but it influenced the many art practices wordwide, like modern sculpture, pop art, neo dada, art informel and lyrical abstraction. All these styles was deeply rooted in the fact that Abstract Expressionism was massively present within the art scene and art education in 1950s, which was, as we said politically motivated as contrapunkt to the Soviet realism.

Dmitry Zhilinsky Bathing soldiers The builders of a bridge 1959

Dmitry-Zhilinsky-Bathing Soldiers -The builders of a bridge 1959.  Image courtesy of Widewalls

Kate Lawrence
Author: Kate Lawrence

Creativity, Community, Culture