The New York School: Relationship to Europe & Place in the Art World

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The New York School was an informal collective of artists, popularizing abstract expressionism using alternative methods of art beyond painting. Explore the migration of European artists post-World War II, and the impact of the New York School on the global art community. Updated: 11/10/2021

Art School

Today, we are going to take a tour of the New York School. And, here we are! Yeah, this is it. What, were you expecting an actual school? The New York School was a group of artists active in New York during the 1950s and 1960s, not a formal institution. Although we most often associate the New York School with painting, the artists in this community were also noted for dance, poetry, music, and other forms of expression. The art being produced by the New York School was considered avant-garde, which means that it was innovative, experimental, or challenged accepted boundaries of art.

One of the most notable innovations was abstract expressionism, a style of painting characterized by complete abstraction, generally expressive techniques, and a focus on line and color without any attempt at representing literal objects. Abstract expressionism and the artists of the New York School ended up having a major influence on American art. Actually, they ended up having major influences on all of art. In a way, you could say that art got schooled.

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  • 0:01 Art School
  • 1:15 Europe and the New York School
  • 3:23 New York School and the World
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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The New York School was a group of artists, not a physical building.
New York School

Europe and the New York School

So let's start with the basic question, why New York? Why did this city become the center point of a new artistic movement? It's important to remember that in the beginning of the 20th century, the undisputed center of the art world was Paris. This is where great art was made and where great artists studied and worked. In fact, American artists had a pretty hard time gaining recognition, and nobody thought that American painters could really develop their own unique styles. Then the Nazis invaded France. As World War II swept over Europe, many of the greatest artists in the world fled to New York for safety, and with Paris under Nazi control, New York became the de facto center of art and culture.

So, European artists moved to New York, and the art scene thrived. Now, the New York School artists were mostly unknown Americans, but the post-war status of New York gave them new opportunities to be recognized for their artistic innovations. Their big moment came in 1951 when several artists from the New York School put on their first internationally-recognized exhibition called the 9th Street Show. This show was their real coming-out to the world, and the first time that many artists from this community attracted real attention from art critics and collectors.

Abstract expressionism was the real focus of the show, and after this point, it became recognized by art critics as the first genuinely American style of abstract art. One of the most notable art critics to push this idea was Clement Greenburg, who argued that the best avant-garde art was now coming from American, not European artists, and that the United States had officially surpassed Europe as the guardian of advanced art. This was huge. Europe had been seen as the center of Western art since... well, since the beginning of Western art. Now, that title was claimed by the United States.

The New York School and the World

The arrival of abstract expressionism onto the art scene and the recognition of New York as the new center of avant-garde art had tremendous impacts on not just American art, but on art in general. Abstract expressionism, in its most traditional form, relies on a very physical technique. Called action painting by many, it involves physically dripping, slinging, or splattering the paint onto the canvas, rather than applying it in a more traditional manner.

The abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock is perhaps the most famous painter to embrace this attitude, and he was really the pioneer in establishing it in fine art. Rather than placing the canvas upright on an easel, Pollock placed it on the floor. This let him walk around it, see it from different angles, and interact with it in a different way while painting. By doing this, Pollock challenged centuries of traditional beliefs about painting.

Abstract expressionism is as much about the 'process' of painting as the finished product. This meant that art was all about the technique and physical appearance, as opposed to having deeper meaning. In art, this idea is called formalism. Now, for the first half of the 20th century, when it was believed that all great art came from Europe, art was all about the conceptual meaning. The physical appearance was almost completely unimportant, so much so that artists created collages out of things they found in the trash. What mattered was the message of the artwork.

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