The first time I heard the words “abstract expressionism” I was in New York, trying to grab another day of leave before the army shipped me overseas. At that time in 1952, while browsing through Greenwich Village, I came upon The Cedar Tavern. “That’s where the abstract expressionists raise hell,” a sophomore girl from Barnard told me. “If you’re interested in art, that’s where the action is.”
Well, my interest was piqued, but time rushed in and stole me away from that small bar, cramped with the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning, and Franz Kline.
It wasn’t until I returned from a tour of duty that included 18 months serving in Korea, that I began to worship the aforementioned artists. Seemed I had brought two visions back with me to the US: Zen calligraphy, brushed with black Sumi ink on rice paper, and the haunting image, indelible in my mind, of an atomic cloud over the devastated city of Hiroshima, Japan. My god. Could this 16-odd number of painters, most of them sons of European immigrants have formed a cauldron influenced by similar visual impressions? Their large canvases bearing the storm of a kind of strange desperation grabbed me by the throat. Different from any paintings I’d seen before, they conveyed both violence and its antithesis, joy, as if that particular combination could carry an artist straight into his dreams.
And there was something else about this new wave of painting called the New York School. It was strictly American. Like jazz, it erupted from the city sidewalks of this country like an astral fist to the face of what had always belonged to an older, more foreign world.