The literature on Abstract Expressionism and its New York environs is vast and deep — and incredibly heavy. (We have the multiple hernias to prove it.) If you’re interested in learning a little more about the period, the movement, its artists and their legacies, here are some of the most informative reads:
"Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience, a Reevaluation," by Irving Sandler Understand the underpinnings of this explosive art movement with this highly accessible book written by a critic who spent plenty of time speaking with, interviewing and writing about all of the artists in question. Comes with a rich dose of color images.
"A Sweeper-Up After Artists," by Irving Sandler In this pleasant memoir, Sandler shares his personal reminisces about a life spent immersed in art, including his rich anecdotes about studio visits and bar hangs with figures including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock.
"de Kooning: An American Master," by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan Beautifully written and chock full of detail is this page-turning biography on the Dutch-born artist who first arrived in New York City as a stowaway. The book deftly chronicles de Kooning's early years in the Netherlands, as well as his subsequent arrival in New York and role as intellectual ringleader among the Abstract Expressionists.
"Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible," B.H. Friedman Originally published in the 1970s, this small-but-detailed book by collector and writer B.H. Friedman is the first biography ever written on Pollock – and the only one by someone who knew him personally. It’s an intimate and sympathetic look at the troubled man who produced some of the 20th century’s most iconic paintings.
"Jackson Pollock: An American Saga," by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith The winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this massive tome (apparently, it weighs in at four pounds) covers the painter’s life and family history in lavish detail – beginning with an early family history in Iowa, Wyoming and the West, and moving to Pollock’s transformative move to New York, which put him in the company of painter and mentor Thomas Hart Benton. Pollock's first encounters with painter and wife Lee Krasner, as well as all of the triumphs and shenanigans of the abstract expressionist years are there, too.
"Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli," by Annie Cohen-Solal This hefty biography (just published this year) covers the breadth and depth of a man who would become one of New York’s most renowned gallerists, representing artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. But before that came the Abstract Expressionism, a movement in which Castelli also had an important hand.
"Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim," by Mary V. Dearborn This fun and dishy book on one of America’s most notorious art world socialites is also thoughtfully researched and reported. And it’s well written, with an appeal that extends well beyond art historical circles. If you’re a fan of social history, or a good yarn about a particularly captivating personality, add this to your list.
"New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century," by Jed Perl Written by "New Republic" art critic Jed Perl, this ambitious tome chronicles the artistic and sociological currents of mid-century New York City, closely examining the visual roots of Abstract Expressionism, but also the myriad other artistic and cultural happenings of the time. Rich in information and detail (down to a passage which describes art critic Clement Greenberg jitterbugging), serious students of art history should consider this a must.
"New York in the Fifties," by Dan Wakefield This memoir of New York takes place during a time when American culture was ascendant. Written by an accomplished journalist who spent many years living among the bohemians of Greenwich Village, this is a captivating book, covering everything from Kerouac and the beats to the jazz sessions at the Five Spot.
"Peggy Guggenheim & Frederick Kiesler: The Story of Art of This Century," edited by Susan Davidson and Philip Rylands A requisite for anyone interested in Peggy Guggenheim and her legacy, this coffee-table tome is richly illustrated and has a complete catalogue of all the exhibits ever held at her gallery. Its conversational tone makes for a good read, too. Best of all? A two page fold-out section including a schematic of what this wild art space once looked like.