Comparison Regionalism and Abstract Expressionism

                        A Comparison Regionalism and Abstract Expressionism

            In some cases, it is possible to compare to paintings, each of  which are representative of a recognized “school” or artistic movement and from this comparison, gain insight into the historical and cultural evolution of the society in which the works were created.  Such is the case with Grant Wood’s, American Gothic, (1930) and  Jackson Pollock’s, Number 1 (Lavender Mist), (1950).  Wood’s American Gothic represents a Regionalist style of painting where Pollock’s Number 1 (Lavender Mist) represents the Abstract Expressionist style.  Both paintings are, to some extent, a reaction to the Modernist movement in art; however the reactions are disparate, with Wood belonging to the Regionalist school  which “rejected modern city life and modern modes of representation, which they saw as elitist and inaccessible to most viewers” (Regionalism, 1) and Pollock contributing as a key figure to the Abstract Expressionist movement which  embraced  “existentialist philosophy and themes” (Abstract Expressionism, 1) while developing a “a post-Cubistic pictorial space characterized, paradoxically, by either free-floating atmospheric effects or spatial stasis which forms did not seem to move back and forth ” (Baigell 298).  The disparate approaches to subject-matter and technique are reflective of the deep cultural and political specificities which influenced each school.

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            In the case of Wood, the reaction against modernity included an inverse celebration of distinctly American ruralism.   By “inverse” what is meant is that an acknowledgment of the satirical and ironic aspect of Wood’s Regionalist painting is necessary to fully explicate the cultural and political impact American Gothic has enjoyed since its creation.  For better or worse, ” “This image has come to symbolize the spirit of rural life in America” (Regionalism, 1) and, as such, it can be considered to convey a dualistic theme.  On the one hand, the painting clearly celebrates American culture and American history with its spatial arrangement and linear technique, both of which  are ” reminiscent of  Colonial-era portraiture” (Regionalism, 1).  The conveyance of an air of “simplicity” and earthiness is obviously intended to celebrate the American cultural tradition of self-reliance and optimism.

However,  to many viewers, the figures represented by Wood’s American Gothic “laid bare the worst qualities of the American character,”  (Baigell 264) and critics evaluated the figures in the painting as being sardonic and ironically portrayed (as in caricature) by pointing out that “The dry facture, the taut edges, and the crisp modeling as well as the simple composition are exact pictorial equivalents of the banalities of most people’s lives and the clichés by which they live”  (Baigell 264).  The most fitting explanation for the duality of Wood’s American Gothic is that Wood intended to convey both the celebratory adn eulogistic aspects of his vision of American culture.  Wood himself wrote “in his famous essay, “Revolt Against the City,” in 1935, “your true regionalist is not a mere eulogist; he may even be a severe critic” (Baigell 264).  Wood succeeded in American Gothic of conveying the important tenants of Regionalism’s effort against Modernism  in an iconographic fashion which has been of great cultural and historical impact.

            While Modernism represented, for Regionalist painters, a movement to struggle against, the Modernist movement represented for a later group of painters, known as Abstract Expressionists, to avail themselves of the new artistic freedoms and psychological insights which Modernism encouraged.  If Regionalism represented a “return” to community roots, agrarian imagery, and technical  conservatism, Abstract Expressionism stood for individualism, psychological immersion, and technical freedom.  The cultural history of Abstract Expressionism “attests to the intellectual, emotional, and artistic vigor of American artists who some thirty-five to forty years after the introduction of modernism to the United States were able to create a body of work that, although based on earlier art, was nevertheless new, different, and individual” (Baigell 298).  Individuality may be considered one of the most important aspects of Abstract Expressionism, and is certainly applicable to the work (and technique) of Jackson Pollock.

            Pollock’s work, Number 1 (Lavender Mist), is representative of Abstract Expressionism’s attempt to “very nearly destroy all sense of tactile space or of forms superimposed one on the other” and to redefine the space of a painting as a space which represented the influence of “Carl Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious” (Abstract Expressionism, 1).  Pollock’s famous “drip” technique evolved out of his early attempts to integrate Jung’s psychoanalytical theories: “”In his early paintings, he combined archetypal imagery with a gestural style and drips of paint to represent the collective unconscious” (Abstract Expressionism, 1).  later, Pollock developed a style of painting, as evidenced in  Number 1 (Lavender Mist) where the drip-technique itself became the primary element of expression.  In works such as these there is a lack of “a single point of focus” so that Abstract Expressionist paintings are “often called all-over paintings” (Abstract Expressionism, 1).  The manifestation through an individualist technique of an individualist vision which is steeped in the notion of “collective unconscousness” could certainly be regarded as a perfect antithesis to Regionalism.

            The most important cultural and historical insight which can be gained by comparing Wood’s American Gothic and Pollock’s Number 1 (Lavender Mist) is that  insight which leads the observer to understand how both Regionalism and Abstract Expressionism comprised disparate strands of evolution from the common source of Modernism.  The two works compared are important because they can be considered representative of the respective movements out which they were  created.  In each case, the paintings represent a consolidation of thematic and technical theories which led artists of very different visions to more fully express themselves through a common medium.

                                                           Works Cited

Baigell, Matthew - Comparison Regionalism and Abstract Expressionism introduction. A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture. Revised ed. Boulder,

            CO: Icon Editions, 1996.

Module Text,  “Abstract Expressionism”

Module Text “Regionalism”


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