History At A Glance

Ward Jackson
Ward Jackson

An Introduction

American Abstract Artists was founded in 1936 in New York City, at a time when abstract art was met with strong critical resistance.  During the 1930s and early 1940s, AAA provided exhibition opportunities when few existed. Its publishing, panels and lectures provided a forum for discussion and gave abstract art theoretical support in the United States. AAA was a predecessor to the New York School and Abstract Expressionism, and contributed to the development and acceptance of abstract art in the United States. American Abstract Artists is one of the few artists’ organizations to survive from the Great Depression and continue into the 21st century.

“What were the circumstances under which this unique organization sprang up and rapidly took root? . . .The year was 1936. The place—New York City. The period—economic depression, and practically total isolation of the general public from all contact with current advanced aesthetic trends”

– Esphyr Slobodkina, a founding member of AAA, in her Historical Outline for the group.

Read more: AAA Historical Outline by Esphyr Slobodkina

“Those were stormy times. Nazi Germany was at its point of high power, Italian and Spanish Fascism was triumphant, Soviet power was rampant. In the art world there was controversy about whether abstraction could be legitimately accepted in the realm of art. In Europe it had begun to make inroads but in the US there was, in the Thirties, the kind of prejudice that some in the European culture had overcome. A typical chauvinistic reaction was that abstraction is too European.”

– Lucio Pozzi, from A Thousand Rivers

Read more: A Thousand Rivers – Lucio Pozzi

The narrative continues with Stephen Westfall:

“In its early years, the AAA was a refuge and source of strength for adventurous artists faced with a largely uncomprehending and often hostile art public. Abstraction broke in America at the Armory Show in 1913, though Dove, Hartley, and O’Keeffe had made forays into abstraction even earlier. Considering the greater difficulties of travel and relative absence of photographic reproduction it is marvelous how advanced the first American work was in relationship to the acknowledged historical primacy of the European abstract painters. . .

“The American Abstract Artists group wasn’t formed until more than twenty years later . . . By this time, abstract art in the public imagination had come to be equated with the clean lines and aesthetic pragmatism of the machine-age. A dynamic, geometric clarity was certainly the aesthetic goal of many abstract artists, but there were others who worked under the influence of Surrealism and Expressionism, not to mention the natural landscape that so inspired the first generation of American abstract artists. From its beginnings, the AAA sought to accommodate this diversity, whatever the opinions of its individual members . . .

– Stephen Westfall

Read more: The Abstract Tradition