The art of assemblage of the post-WWII era — commonly referred to as abstract essentialism — strives to redefine the world and society in its time: break things down and build them up again it suggests this is the new meaning of meaning. Society, coming out of the Great War, was in a period of repurposing — the old was reassembled to make way for the new. This transformation was not without agita.
In 1962, Lester Longman wrote in the inaugural edition of ArtForum, that “our time was witnessing a massive drift towards the mechanization of life and the dehumanization of man.”
The movement cannot see beyond its own boundaries, Longman argues, because it exists within the confines of capitalism. What the iconoclast sees as his self-expression is, in fact, conformity to the cult of nonsense— of non-meaning. It is in the non-meaning that the art finds meaning, but it will never escape the confines of the capitalist system from whence it originated. He goes onto say that modernity, was a time when society shifted towards specialization:
The development of the specialist, the fragmented man with a special skill, whose economic contribution in a complexly interdependent society is highly efficient, and whose mind may be more freely manipulated by those in power. Should we be surprised that in an age of specialists, the intellectual and the artist have also become specialists—fragmented men who create an art of emotive fragments intelligible only to one of their own kind
The artist in Nazi and Communist cultures as it had risen in various parts of Europe in the early 20th century, he says, under such state bureaucracies, man is reduced to an “invoice number,” and the artist serves as a pawn in the propaganda necessary for such forms of social control. “The art of this Nazi and Communist mass culture is therefore controlled by and dedicated to the interests of the state, and up to the present no significant artists have been developed by Nazi, Fascist, or Communist societies anywhere.”
In the United States, however, his outlook is that two antagonistic forces — the power elite (or “industrialist”) vs. the intelligentsia — nevertheless will lean towards conformity.
The path for a freed artist is bleak. The cultural renaissance post WWII, as was facilitated by the “Federal Art Project,” (part of Roosevelt’s New Deal to stimulate the American economy), should have “freed” the artist, but in fact the economies of art pushed artists into what Longman derides as avant-garde art. Various names were used in the late 1950s and 1960s for this new kind of art: abstract expressionism, the anti-art movement, dadaism and neo-dadaism, junk culture, and art of assemblage.
Thanos Tsingos (1914-1965), a Greek artist who is associated with Abstract Expressionism and Dadaism, was said to have painted very fast. Once he painted twenty paintings in a single evening (although only two were said to be masterpieces).
Mario Kujawski, who is best known for his geometric abstraction art.
Robert Rauschenberg, a significant name in abstract essentialism and is said to have ‘anticipated’ the pop art movement, first came onto the art scene in 1951. He is perhaps known best for is his works like “Bed”
In the later 50s and early 60s, Rauschenberg started picking up junk that interested him on the streets of New York City and took it back to his studio. The result was an assemblage— a combine, a term coined to describe Rauchenberg’s work of this era— that transformed the rubbage into meaning.
The name “Jackson Pollack” is probably best known for action painting, a technique that involved spattering paint onto a canvas in a seemingly random way.
In 1960 at the height of Dadism, Jean Tinguely (1925-91) famously created (and then destroyed) “Homage to New York,” a sculpture of junk that was rigged together to burn itself into pieces.
It would appear from these few examples of the several arts that we are in an age which has fallen in love with disorder, an age of anxiety and despair, of existential nausea and self-pity, of parasitic cynicism and moral degeneration. We are obsessed with the tortured conviction of the emptiness, futility, and boredom of life. Having neither faith nor hope, we thrash about in our frustration, now with violence and brutality, now with vulgarity or inanity, or again with bleak anguish or hyena laughter, with mad intoxication or abysmal depravity.
Indeed, the fundamental tension between the classical art of the old and the art of the reformed— that is, re-formed, becomes the central theme which allows this generation of artists to define the landscape. When everybody is doing assemblage, is anybody creating something unique?
It is precisely this tension between those who see art as transformation and those who see the art merely as the means to the end: Does the fact that it has been cut up and reassembled make it become art, that is, thus somehow fixed outside of commerce, industry, and modalities of society? Or, as Longman argues, is the production of the assemblage the reification of the societal structures it was created within? Will the artist ever escape his society?
Is our existence not just a refactored version of our prior implementation or the prior implementations of the people who’ve inspired us?
Longman goes on to discuss the dualistic forces of societies present, that is, America in early 1960s:
Throughout history, the fine arts have always been created for an elite audience either of aristocrats or of priests. But until modern times the men in power included the cultural leaders as well. Today, however, there are two antagonistic cultures in the West, that of the power elite and that of the intelligentsia, yet each submits in its own way to the massive force of conformism.
So the force of capitalism in art and mass media pushing the creative class to a place of modernist conformity balancing on the tension between what is to come and what was constructs the central arc of the narrative of this period in the art world.
Perhaps it is a natural cycle, perhaps it is a cycle built on industry or faith. As modern society moved forward, abstract essentialism would evolve to the idealism and novelty of the latter half of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, the Neo-Dada has movement has forever left its mark on our collective unconscious.