Abstract Expressionism for Beginners (For Beginners)

A handy how-to for the controversial art style.

176 pgs., B & W; $15.95

(W: Richard Klin; A: Lily Prince)


Abstract expressionism is one of those cultural terms, like film noir, that has entered everyday language. The art itself is also relatively familiar—a Mark Rothko painting was featured on Mad Men, for heaven’s sake—and opinions of the value of such works (which sometimes are variations on “my kid could paint that!”) are also readily available. Yet pinning down what makes an art work abstract expressionist is not easy, and neither is understanding how and why this approach became the “it” style in the years following World War II. Richard Klin takes on both tasks in Abstract Expressionism for Beginners, while also providing potted biographies of some of the key figures in the field.

abstractexpAs if that were not enough of a challenge, Klin is operating under two handicaps. One is that Abstract Expressionism for Beginners is printed in black and white, while color was a key component in the work of many abstract expressionist painters. The second is that this book includes no reproductions of the works discussed, although there are sometimes hints or impressions of them in Lily Prince’s illustrations. So this book includes lots of descriptions of art, and lots of anecdotes about artists, but no chance for a reader to look at a good reproduction of any of the art in question and make up their own mind about it.

Abstract Expressionism for Beginners works best as a sort of collage, bringing together a number of materials that may prompt the reader to explore a topic of interest further on their own. There are many interesting pull quotes salted throughout the book, as well as excerpts from various documents, any of which might serve as the impetus for further research. Another strong point is the inclusion of some artists, including Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, who are not as well-known as, say, Jackson Pollock.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that much of the information included in this book is readily available elsewhere (Wikipedia being the most obvious example, and that source has the benefits of being free and of including links to color reproductions of many works of art) and all too often Klin has not made the effort to transform it into something new or to make it useful to the reader. For instance, if it’s worth saying what the artists who were part of the WPA’s Federal Art Project were paid (he has it as $20 per week; other sources have it as $23.60), it’s also worth putting that information into context (for instance, the federal minimum wage in October 1938 was 25 cents per hour, so you would earn $10 by working a forty-hour week; the WPA artists were getting paid twice that much).

Klin also has a habit of offering labels and opinions in place of evidence and analysis. For instance, it’s no secret that the art world was a boy’s club in the decades when abstract expressionism flourished, but repeatedly stating this fact is less useful than analyzing why it was the case (as some would say it still is today) or naming examples of the practices that furthered the exclusion of women. Even citing examples of specific behavior or statements is better than relying on labels like “troglodyte attitude” that trigger emotional responses without offering anything of substance to the reader.

The text often feels like it needs a good edit, as if it were dashed off in haste and rushed to print without revision. Sometimes the labels applied are simply bizarre and inappropriate, as when Joan Mitchell is said to have had an “effete” background, an insulting term suggesting affectation and/or enervation. Mitchell did enjoy a more privileged early life (her father was a physician, her mother a poet and editor) than some of her peers (this she had in common with Robert Motherwell, whose father was the president of Wells Fargo Bank), but Klin provides no information to explain why he slapped that particular label on Mitchell’s background.

Artist Lily Prince employs a variety of styles in Abstract Impressionism for Beginners, from pure abstraction to straightforward illustration, and often her art is combined with the text in creative and insightful ways. Sometimes art and text literally share the page, so that the text is superimposed over an abstract background suggesting brush strokes or paint drips, while at other times the art more conventionally provides simple portraits of specific artists or interpretations of specific paintings.

Abstract Expressionism for Beginners is published by For Beginners LLC. You can find more information on this release on the publisher’s website. | Sarah Boslaugh

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