I’m currently working my way through a series of critical biographies of American painters of the mid-twentieth-century: I’ve finished Rothko and Arshile Gorky, and now I’ve begun Willem de Kooning. Two suicides and an Alzheimer’s victim — compared to the Abstract Expressionists, the Surrealists were a stroll in the park.
The one unifying characteristic that seemed to prevail in American painting mid-century was the prevalence of European immigrants struggling against very difficult personal legacies: Rothko was a Latvian Jew at a time when Jews were being blamed for the upheavals tearing the Russian Empire apart; Gorky was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey; the Dutch de Kooning survived a terrible childhood of poverty and emotional stress only to succumb to alcoholism and eventually dementia in his adult life. Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, but his Western upbringing left him little better prepared for life as a New York artist: he was struggling with alcoholism before his career had even begun.
The European Surrealists, such as Max Ernst, Paul Eluard, Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Andre Masson, were also uprooted by war and economic turmoil, and all seemed to share a profound emotional instability that left them incapable of lasting emotional attachments, but they seemed to be able to externalize their problems, making life difficult for those around them but leaving themselves relatively unscathed.
Was it the nature of each group’s work that had such deep, but different, effects on their emotional lives, or were they all drawn into their respective universes because of each individual’s personal charactistics? In other words, did Abstract Expressionism make artists self-destructive, or did only self-destructive artists become involved in Abstract Expressionism?