The originality and potency of American art from the years after World War II cannot be disputed. Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and David Smith, to name only a few of Abstract Expressionism’s giants, are today acclaimed as modern masters. Nor can the international influence of American post-war art be questioned, pace the persistent theory—unsupported by fact—that worldwide attention was paid to this work only because of a cia-headed propaganda campaign. Yet explanations of the origins of Abstract Expressionism can be misleading, although most are less extreme than Barnett Newman’s self-aggrandizing assertion, in a 1970 interview, that “about twenty-five years ago . . . painting was dead. . . . I had to start from scratch as if...


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