“Is this a painting?” US artist Jackson Pollock asked in 1947, unsure about one of his early works. It was the first year of the Cold War, and precisely because his weird, lumpy canvas of unplanned loops didn’t look like anything, the newly formed US Central Intelligence Agency adopted it as a symbol of all-American freedom and free-market capitalism. There was nothing like it on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
To stretch the cultural distance between East and West, CIA agents began to promote Pollock’s style, called Abstract Expressionism: in Europe, they covertly funded and organized traveling exhibitions of Pollock and fellow painters Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell, called Masterpieces of the 20th Century (1952) and New American Painting (1958). In the United States, New York’s Museum of Modern Art was enlisted to help the strange new aesthetic take root; the intervention eventually shifted the whole art world’s orbit from Paris and London to revolve around New York City.
More than 50 years later, abstract art once again “reigns supreme” according to Art Newspaper’s report on the elite Swiss art fair, Art Basel 2013. And today, the highest-selling contemporary artist alive is German painter Gerhard Richter, who credits Jackson Pollock for making him realize that “there was something wrong with my whole way of thinking.” Richter first saw Pollock’s work at an exhibition in 1959, just before he defected from East Germany.
From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.