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JOHN DEWEY AND THE ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISTS
Maurice R. Berube
Department of Educational Leadership
Old Dominion University

By the mid-twentieth century, American art had made a giant breakthrough to
international recognition. That tiny band of Abstract Expressionist painters located
in Greenwich Village, New York, brought modern art to its logical abstract conclu-
sion. In the process, these ”heroic” artists closed out high modernism and estab-
lished American painting as a dominant world force. A key influence in this
generation of American artists was the quintessential American philosopher, John
Dewey. In 1934,John Dewey extended his pragmatist/instrumentalist philosophy to
art in his book Art as Experience.’ The book influenced the development of modern
American art.
In this essay I shall make a number of key points regarding Art as Experience and
the Abstract Expressionists. First, I shall summarize Dewey’s theory of art; second,
I shall review the debate by art scholars as to Dewey’s influence on Abstract
Expressionism; third, I shall compare the statements of these artists (and their
contemporary art critics) about their work with some of Dewey’s main ideas in Art
as Experience; fourth, I shall cite the accumulating historical evidence that Dewey
was one crucial source in the development of these artists; and fifth, I shall
summarize Dewey’s influence on the development of art education in the schools,
which coincided to some degree with the impact of the Abstract Expressionists.
DEWEY’S THEORY OF ART

Dewey’s aim in Art as Experience was to define the nature of the aesthetic
experience. He also wanted to bring art out of the museums and into the general life
of the American public. For Dewey the “‘museum’ attitude toward art had infected
aesthetic theory.”’ Dewey was uncomfortable with an “institutional theory of art”
since he believed that “there is no work of art apart from the human experience” (TA,
p. 187).
Consequently, Dewey sought to define the nature of the artistic experience. In
his excellent analysis of Dewey’s art theory, lohn Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience,
and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling, Thomas Alexander concludes that “the most
significant idea in Dewey’s aesthetics [is)having a n experience’’ [TA,p. 185). For
Dewey, there was the “art product” displayed in museums, and there was an
experience of art. That experience entailed the entire process of the art endeavor from
1. John Dewcy, Art as Experience [New York: Capricorn Books, 1934),35, 202. This hook will be cited as
AE i n the text for all subsequent references.
2. Thomas M. Alexander, lohn Dewey‘s Theory of Art, Experience and Nnture: The Horizoiis of Feeling
(Albany:State University of New York Press), 1987, 191. This book will he cited as TA in thc text for all
subsequent references.

EDUCATIONAL THEORY / Spring 1998 / Volume 48 / Number 2
0 1998 Board of Trustees / University of Illinois

. His primary areas of scholarship are educational history.He gives as a case in point that “a Jackson Pollock may at first seem entirely random. organic. An experience is also highly emotional. 348). that “the imagination is the chief instrument of the good. p.. p. “Emotion. educational policy. 187).’’ Alexander remarks that “Dewey finds this the human tragedy” (TA. a developmental process. Virginia Beach. 104). 35). One cannot separate the art product from the developmental process. Dewey states that “such an experience is a whole” that has a “unity” (AE.213)..p. Furthermore. Dewey’s art theory was grounded in his moral sense. involves not only emotion on the part of the artist but also expressive and emotional response in the viewer: “Every art communicates because it expresses.p. then.The process of art. “the continuity of interaction creates a dynamic. 45-46). In short “It is an experience” as opposed to mere experience (AE.p. pp. Indeed.he wrote that true art was essentially moral.. 185. 195-196). p.interacting [in a] dramatic unity so that there is a cumulative sense of an overall event being accomplished or brought to completion’’ (TA. Alexander would call Dewey’s theory of expression one of his “central concepts” in Art as Experience. VA 23464. His preferred mailing address is 4691 Rosecroft St.. and unified whole. 69). but gradually there emerges a sense of basic rhythms and richness of texture” (TA. 35. means a total involvement of mind and spirit resulting in the deepest meaning and fulfillment of the human condition. Dewey is presenting a radical theory of human life and conduct. It is a coherent. . And it requires a high degree of intelligence. In Art as Experience.. “is essential to that act of expression which produces a work of art” (AE. whereby “the nature of aesthetic experience be expressive” and based on “the articulation of emotion” (TA.According to Alexander.For Dewey ”the objects of art are expressive. 184). pp. What is an experience then? An experience is a dynamic interaction between artist and environment involving an emotional struggle to resolve the tension between inspiration and creation. And Dewey posited a theory of expression that contained emotion. . MAURICE BERUBE is Eminent Scholar of Educational Leadership at Old Dominion University. 202). Most experience is not “an experience. Alexander argues that Dewey was not simply “rounding” out his philosophy by writing Art as Experience but producing a “central and crucial text” in the Deweyan canon (TA. then. art was for Dewey “the most successful effort to have an experience” (AE. . 208). growing experience in which the relationship between parts is perceived” (TA. As Alexander explains. Alexander restates Dewey’s theory of an experience in art as ”an affair of temporal development [with]progressive integration. p.pp.p. 198).p.p.212 EDUCATIONAL THEORY 1998 / VOLUME SPRING 48 / NIJMHER 2 original concept to art product. the artistic use of experience marks a principle for ethics and social theory which cannot be ignored” (TA. 208). they communicate” (AE. 244). and urban education. An experience. Alexander maintains that “in writing a book on art. Dewey felt that “genuine art probably demands more intelligence than the so-called thinking that goes among those who pride themselves on being “intellectuals” (AE.” Dewey wrote.p. 201).It enables us to share vividly and deeply in meanings to which we had been dumb‘’(AE. pp.[that]art is more moral than the moralities” (AE. .

the art scholar Leon Jacobsen dismissed such an influence. Although it is true that many of Dewey’s examples are from the 3 . Jacobsen contends that Art as Experience “never gets beyond objective reality” and was “fated to be a prescrip- tion for the making and enjoyment of illustration. 8.. And in one instance.”3 A diametrically opposite view was offered by the art scholar Stewart Buettner in the same journal fifteen years later. Writing in The 1ournal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 7. perhaps just as such exists in the ‘people’s democracies’ of our time. and Renoir as indicating that Dewey was concerned mainly with representational art.”4However.6He interprets Dewey’s examples of such painters as Degas. Ibid. 125. was close to advocating agitprop art: ”The problem which Dewey poses in A r t as Experience. 4. Stewart Buettner. the separation of art from the experience of the masses [occurs] the less objectively real does it appear. Ibid. they worked with the same presuppositions in mind.” the seminal years of Abstract Expressionism.”’ Jacobsen is incorrect. had decided to see how far they could depart from its central art recipe in their own creations.” 117. 5. 9. “ A r t us Experience and American Visual Art Today. Jacobsen cites Dewey’s use of the word “object” in one paragraph “seven times in as many lines” to bolster his case.” fournu1 of Aesthefics untl Art Criticism (Winter 1960): 117. . Buettner contended that “even if these artists never had contact with Dewey’s theories. He then compared that interpretation with the “evidence of the non-objective character of American visual art practice between 1946and 1952.. according to Jacobsen. neither scholar had benefit of the historical evidence that has been accumulating in the past decade or so strongly indicating that Dewey’s Art as Experience not only was read by many of the Abstract Expressionists but that some of these artists attributed Dewey as an influence.BERURE Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists 213 Two VIEWSON DEWEY’S INFLUENCE There has been a dispute among art scholars as to Dewey‘s influence on the Abstract Expressionists. In proposing a creative experience for the masses depicting scene painting. to assume that Dewey had no interest in abstraction.”8Consequently.”lournul ofAesthetics and Art Criticism (Summer 1975):388. 145.’ Jacobsendoes not feel kindly to Dewey. however. 120. and concluded in his reading of Dewey ”how little the real world of American art today accords with Dewey’s life-long objective art views as expressed in Art as Experience. stating that it was “as if the majority” of these artists “having read carefully Art as Experience. Jacobsen based his argument on Dewey‘s alleged preference for representational art.. Cezanne. Ibid. in Dewey’s words. . Leon jacobson.namely. emphasis added. Jacobson.. which dealt with the relation of line to color. the philosopher preferred ”objects and scenes of ordinary experience” rather than abstraction. Dewey. “JohnDeweyandTheVisualArts in America.”5 He maintains that. Ibid. “ A r t us Experience and American Visual Art Today. 6.

On the contrary. Moreover. h i d . action.. He cites the influence of Dewey’s ideas as promulgated in the Works Project Administration/Fine Arts Program ( 1935- 1943)by its director Holger Cahill. by means of exact imitation. otherwise they “might have remained nothing more than a highly unorthodox interpretation of Surrealist doctrine. Buettner discusses Pollock’s relationship with the regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. Ruettner. he raises a most interesting speculation that ”the great American philosopher’s marked divergence from the tradition of continental aesthetics” freed the Abstract Expressionists. In his 1975 essay. But in Buettner’s essay no direct link is made. Still. the paradox remains that Dewey’s A r t us Experience did influence a regionalist scenic painter such as Thomas Hart Benton on the one hand. it would only. he bases his interpretation on the nature of their work and the similarity to ideas expressed in Art as Experience.214 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y SPRING 48 1 NLIMUEK 1998 1 VOLUME 2 representational art of the Impressionist and post-Impressionist period. and the Abstract Expressionist. 13. 3 8 3 . However.” 3 8 7 . whether in Cezanne or Picasso. He is unsure whether any of these artists either read Dewey or discussed him.”” The weakness of Buettner’s essay is the lack of hard historical data to support his thesis. using only the example of Pollock.”“’ The strength of Buettner’s article is that it suggests for the first time a link between Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists. Undoubtedly Pollock personified Dewey’s spirit of experience. Ibid. that it was possible for Dewey’s theories to affect representational and abstract artists alike. Ihid. Buettner argues that Pollock illustrated Dewey’s notions that the experience of art unleashed its own dialectic and gave expression to the attendant emotion involved.. had no limits: Every work of art abstracts in some degree from the particular traits of objects expressed. on the other. Dewey did not box himself into arigid formula that rejected abstraction. p. ”John Dewey and The Visual Arts in America. Robert Motherwell. Instead..”” Rather. 11. 94).There IS no a priori rulc to decide how far abstraction may be carried (AE. he saw essentially that in the art process. he is unable to cite direct attribution to Dewey by these artists. Lacking these data. Otherwise. where many of these artists apprenticed their craft. 390. then. Stewart Buettner argued that “the heart of Dewey’s aesthetics resides in his formulations of experience” and that Jackson Pollock’s ”total emo- tional involvement in the act of painting could have provided Dewey with no better illustration of an artist completely engaged in having ‘an experience’ while engaged in the act of painting. create an illusion of the presence of things themselves . . ’’I 10. he acknowledges that his “intention is not to make a direct casual link between Dewey’s Art as Experience and subsequent events in the development of painting and sculpture in the United States.8 8 . and emotion. It is clear.. who was “highly influenced by Dewey’s ideas” and “borrowed at times heavily from Dewey’s key phrases. 12. abstraction..

lackson Pollock: An Americm Saga (NewYork: Clarkson N. Vienna. 16. Dewey’s art education was received from a former student. in some form. more affectionate family than the one he had left behind. and living art. According to the most recent biography of Pollock. Dewey dedicated A r t as Experience to Barnes. Pollock was Benton’s “favorite” student who also became part of the Benton household where Pollock had “created a new. Through Barnes. however. With his collection of European masters from Cezanne to Picasso in his own museum. dated 1933-1934. 192. Ibid. xviii). Benton borrowed heavily from Art as Experience. Jackson Pollock.. 1975). Barnes had first accumulated a large fortune and then an impressive collection of the modern art of his day -wholly European and Paris-based.p.”’ Given Benton’s strong personality and Pollock’s close relation to him. which featured contributions from John Dewey. emphasizing in his art and teaching ”emotions. 389. EXPRESSIONISTS AND THE ABSTRACT ARTA S EXPERIENCE When one deconstructs Art as Experience and compares the book to the published writings of the Abstract Expressionists (and their contemporary critics) one notes an amazing similarity of concept. 15. From 1931 to 1937. direct experience. “The Papers of Jackson Pollock.I4 But. it is inconceivable that Pollock would not be familiar. and finally did appear as Abstract Expressionism.He noted “ingratitude” that he had “the benefit of conversations” with Barnes “in the presence of the unrivaled collection of pictures he has assembled” and 14. Thomas Hart Benton. Modern Monthly.C. 383.”15AndBenton was a disciple of Dewey‘s philosophy. that Pollock was acquainted with some of Dewey’s writings. and Madrid. although he abhorred abstract art. with the ideas embedded in Art as Experience. Benton had “met the philosopher John Dewey and adopted Dewey’s” ideas. Barnes. Dewey cited his “greatest indebtness” to Barnes who “inspired the work of which this book is a part” (AE. D. There is evidence. Albert C. ”tutoring” Dewey on modern art. He also sponsored and subsidized Dewey’s tour in 1926 of the major museums in Paris.” Archives of American Artists [Washington. Dewey was exposed to the European tradition and when writing Art as Experience discussed art theories for a modern art movement that was yet to appear. An inventory of the painter’s bookshelves at the time of his death in 1956 revealed that Pollock kept a number of copies of the socialist journal. Barnes reversed the role of student and teacher. Barnes exposedDewey to the cutting edge of modem art. it is Pollock’s close relationship with the regionalist painter. who was Pollock’s first major teacher -and surrogate father -which indicates strongly that Pollock was exposed to Deweyan ideas on art. . Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. 1989). as Buettner first noted.: Smithsonian.l h Moreover.. Ibid. Theirs was a lifelong friendship that ended with Barnes’s death a year before that of Dewey in 1952. 17.BERUBE Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists 215 There is no evidence that Pollock read Art as Experience. Potter.

216 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y 1998 1 VOLUME SPRING 48 1 NUMBER 2 acknowledged that “the influence of these conversations” was “a chief factor in shaping my own thinking about the philosophy of aesthetics” (AE. 20. since this way I can walk around it. No.” he wrote. When I am in my painting. Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of A d Reinhardt (New York: The Viking Press. “My Painting. 18. Abstract Expressionist Painting in America [Cambridge: Harvard University Press.2’ Echoing Dewey’s emphasis on process.”lnteriors. no.”2”In 1952. Willem De Kooning would comment that the “texture of experience is prior to everything else.26-27. Harold Rosenberg.What matters always is the revelation in the Most aestheticians interpret Dewey’s theory of expression to mean that the creative act not only must have emotion but that the art product must embody emotion as well. I am more at ease. However. the art critic Harold Rosenberg perceptively captured this spirit in his classic essay “The American Action Painters. the sketch is one action. 10 (May 1951).” And Willem De Kooning would say that: “I am always in the picture somewhere. work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. 1975). videocassette. Painting and Sculpture. Schultz.is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. the painting that follows it is another.Jackson Pollock. This hook will be cited as AEP in the text for all subsequent references.p.”22AndAd Reinhardt wrote that “it is more difficult to write about abstract painting than any other painting because the content is not in a subject matter or story. Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt.. 1951).. more a part of the painting. . 19471. It’s only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about.The reason I paint them . William C. the following statements by the artists read as if they were uttered by the same person. The Tradition of the New (London: Thames and Hudson. 4 (New York: Wittenborn. 19. and there seems to be a time when I lose sight of what I wanted to do. Mark Rothko. 24. 1991).’. 1983).. eds. Dewey’s concept of art as “an experience” became a major feature of Abstract Expressionism. 1962).”20And Mark Rothko: I paint very large pictures . Robert Motherwell remarked that ”what I know how to do is paint the experience of trying to make a picture. you paint the larger pictures. This is a hallmark of Abstract Expressionist painting and sculpture. to look upon an experience as a stereopticon vicw with a reducing glass. I feel nearer.” in terms that might as well have been found in Dewey’s Art as Experience: “If a painting is an action. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience. Jackson Pollock described his method of painting in the following terms: On the floor.. 22. Problems of Contemporary Art. 21.” inpossibilities I : An Occasional Review. and then I am out of it. . The amount of space I use I am always in. Robert Motherwell and The New York School: Storming The Citadel (New York: Public Broadcasting System. Modern Artists in America (NewYork: Wittenborn Schultz. . “call this painting ’abstract’ or ‘expressionist’ or ’Abstract Expressionist. Dewey’s ideas in Art as Experience and the statements of the Abstract Expres- sionists are remarkably similar. I’m not aware of what I’m doing.. 79.”18 Indeed.xviii.49. you are in it. 23. “A Symposium onHow to Combine Architecture. xviii). Seitz. I seem to move around in it. 12. 104. but in the actual painting activity.

pp.” compared to its successor art movement. Philip Pavia. .2sAnd in delineat- ing the difference between his paintings and those of his friend De Kooning.. De Kooning told an interviewer some years later that “I paint the way I do because I can keep putting more and more things in .”26The reference was to the paintings. 26. but intensely emotional.to generate the indispensable excitement. In their painting. . 167-68. It was an art that was regarded as “hot. 31. . ed. Dewey concluded that “without emotion. 87. Ibid.BEnuBE Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists 217 in which the art product was uniquely emotional.”~’ 25. “is to be inspired” ( A E .. Not to be outdone in the feeling department.”28 Robert Motherwell would observe that ”the School of New York is not intellec- tual.” Dewey did not hedge in declaring that “the role of emotion in the act of expression” was a dominating characteristic of great art (AE. p.His language is full of “hot” words: “TObe set on fire by a thought or scene. there may be craftsmanship. The Abstract Expressionists echoed Dewey’s sentiments.. The Club. . 29. 77.animpulsion.He goes on to describe the creative act as “the interaction of the fuelwithmaterialalreadyafire. Jackson Pollock in- formed his radio host in the early 1950s that he formulated his famed pouring technique to fit his emotions: “A method of painting is a natural growth out of a need. Portrait of un Artist: [ackson Pollock (London: South Bank Show. The Collected Writings of Willem De Kooning [New York: Hanuman Books.C. Motherwell (New York: Rizzoli International Publishing.. 19911. 30. . D. ”Describ- ~~ ing Abstract Expressionism in 1991. 1965). 28.: Smithsonian. a discussion group formed by the artists. featured a lecture titled ”Emotional A r c h i t e c t ~ r e . most of them. anger. the art product. The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (New York: Oxford University Press.. Melvyn Bragg. we have violent strokes and expressive colors. my ideas of space [since] through your eyes it becomes an emotion or an idea.I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them [because] the modem artist expresses his feelings rather than imitating [nature]. a figure. love.”27On another occasion. but not art” ( A E .” he wrote.” The emotionality of the New York School art was one reason for the appellation “Expressionism. he would describe his urban landscapes that followed his highly emotional first Women series as “emotions.. 65). a horse. he made his classic remark to De Kooning that “you know more. . 19881.. without apology for either the strength of the feeling or for the focus of the intelle~t. but I feel more. film.. Jack Flam.. 112. which was arevolt against the previous masters and regarded as ”cool.like drama.the art critic JackFlam concluded that it was “an art in which strong feeling is directed and focused by a powerful intellect.materials undergoing combustion because of intimate contacts” ( A E . Indeed. “The Records of The Club.p. pain.throwninto commotion. 70). 1987). though its members include the most cultivated among the painters that I know For example.” in Archives ofAmerican Art (Washington. Ibid. 1992). 7. 27. 67). turmoil. p. 65-66). Pop Art.

. and he acknowledged himself that “when aperson is a mystic he must always strive to make everything ~oncrete.is a way of living. Mothcrwell and Reinhardt.If I can manage to keep a balance with improvisation. Robert Hughes. In his interview with De Kooning. . “painterliness: loose. Willem De Kooning. In his 1997 documentary.”. 33. 35. 36. who defined the “label ‘Abstract Expressionism’” as among other things. Ameri- can Visions. Breslin. De Kooning informed Seitz that he was “disinterested in the cosmic voids” yet. On the one hand. Mark Rorhko: A Biography [Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ”painting . in his words. But there is a consensus among art historians that the work of the Abstract Expressionists was essentially moral and spiritual.”. .. In France. American Visions: The Empire of Signs. television. a yearning for transcendent experience that would go beyond the things of this As a case in point. vol. of course.”36Indeed. However. 19971. p. 1993).276. rapid handling.1969. 1994). 18. with his pouring technique forever captured in Hans Namuth’s short film. . my work gets more meaning. 134). Dewey’s concern with the moral in art is uniquely American. or the look of Another similarity between Art and Experience and the Abstract Expressionists is the belief that great art had to be moral in content. a style of living” ( A E P . lames E.was obsessed with the idea of an abstract art that would carry the full weight of religious meaning. 123. Hughes cited Mark Rothko. which is perhaps why the subject was constantly discussed among them.. there existed a degree of confusion among the Abstract Expressionists as to what they meant by the moral in art. which is my way of doing it. William Seitz gives us a good example of this confusion. whom he felt ‘. Ibid. episode 7 (New York: Public Broadcasting System.j3The personification of spontaneity. . Modern Artisrs in America. a recent philosophical essay question asked of all senior lyceC students was: Does Art have to be moral? For Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists the question would have sounded redundant.’’~’ Seitz would note as two of his ten summative characteristics of Abstract Expressionism “the transcendental reality which begins 32. . Rothko’s mysticism was legendary among his fellow artists. Artist [Pacific Palisades. to keep that glimpse. 4 (Chicago:University of Chicago Press. 1993). on the other hand. the moral and the spiritual were often interchangeable.For the Abstract Expressionist.p.B.32 De Kooning would tell film maker Robert Snyder that “I paint fast.The spontaneous in art is complete absorption in subject matter that is fresh” (AE. just as there is a lack of precision in Dewey’s definition of the moral in art. film. The Collcctcd Essays und CriLicisrii of Clement Greenberfi 1957. 37.: Masters and Masterworks.218 EDUCATIONAL THEORY 1998 1 VOLUME SPRING 48 1 NUMHER 2 Dewey also believed that in having an experience there is a degree of spontaneity: “Works of art often present to us an air of spontaneity. 34. 70). was Jackson Pollock. the art critic Robert Hughes concluded that “Abstract Expressionism had its theological side. Calif. Robert Snyder.. An art critic who was a major advocate for the Abstract Expressionists (especially Pollock) was Clement Greenberg. it reaches a certain fullness. The Abstract Expressionist painter James Brooks would say that “my work is improvisation to start with.

Motherwell. ”Reinhardt ~~ himself was continually making lists as guides in his ”search for a code of ethi~s. 160. Hans Hoffman. 41. 42. Jack Flam would reinforce that insight by declaring that Abstract Expressionism was ”rooted in the philosophical idealism.Art as Experience was published at a time when these young artists were struggling to achieve a distinctive voice that would gain them world renown.””And a generation later.” . and they have defined this search for the transcendent as ”high modernism” in contrast to the preoccupation with popular culture. and Mark Rothlto are but a few examples). and secular spirituality of high modernism. Arshile Gorky. Ihid. 31. p. But Dewey provided the most American influence to a group that was heavily represented by European emigres (De Kooning. The Collected Wrilings of Robcri Motherwell. This testimony came to light in 1986 in a dissertation by Robert Saltonstall 38.”i9 For some of the artists the moral question implied not only spirituality but some form of ethical artistic conduct. and Picasso. ”The Records of The Club. 151. mythopedia. Two of his seven lectures dealt with ”the distinction between ‘moral’ [social]and ’ethical” and “the artist as ethical i n d i ~ i d u a l . Reinhardt noted that ”ethics and morality come up now more and more frequently in artists’ d i s c ~ s s i o n s . Motherwell. the most eloquent and formally educated of the Abstract Expression- ists. 268 43. the Mexican muralists such as Siquerios and Orozco (with whom many of the fledgling Abstract Expressionists worked in the Work Projects Administration in the Federal Arts Projects (WPA/FAP) that Franklin D. 40. Matisse.”~’Motherwell’~ course syllabus for his 1955art class at Hunter College revealed a preoccupation with the moral. Rosenberg. The Tradition of the New.And ” ~ ~ The Club would sponsor a panel discussion entitled “Morality and Art” as late as 1962. Flam. Pavia. essentially a religious movement [which however] has been experienced in secular terms. with the majority of painters. Art-cis-Art. 152). 7 . Roosevelt instituted in the 1930s).. Other critics have echoed the spiritual theme. Milton Resnick. The clearest testimony concerning Dewey’s influence comes from Robert Motherwell. 39.BEnuRE Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists 219 to approach a mystical dissolution of the ego” and “the ultimate focus of their work being a search for ‘the Reality of Realities’” ( A E P . They had declared for themselves no less a task than to make American art the equal of Europe’s. There were many painterly influences on the Abstract Expressionists: the school of Surrealism that emphasized psychic automatism.43 THEHISTORICAL EVIDENCE What clearly emerges from the historical data is that Dewey’s ideas on art formed one source of influence in the formative years of the New York School (whowere also called the “Action Painters”). Reinhardt. or “low art” in postmodernism. In his seminal essay “The American Action Painters.and the three great modernists of the twentieth century -Cezanne.“ Rosenberg observed that the “new movement is.

98-99). As an undergraduate at Stanford in the mid. Robert SaltonstallMattison. Motherwell called Seitz’sevaluation of the work of the Abstract Expressionists a “stunning effort to clarify the actual nature of Abstract Expressionism” with an ”analysis not only of what we artists were saying. 48. In his foreword to the book. In Seitz’s study."^' Moreover. He told Mattison that I owe Dewey part of my sense of process. He dcmonstrated philosophically that abstract rhythms. Hoffman. unfinished character of many of [Motherwell’s]early paintings can be related to Dewey’s e~perimentalism. 49.220 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y SPKINC1998 / VOLUME 48 / NUMHER 2 Mattison who interviewed Motherwell. Ibid. and 44. 6.”44Motherwell had found in Dewey the sense of process and a sanctioning of abstraction to reveal one’s inner self.. 36.. and Mark Tobey. Gorky. xii). but more importantly.Everyone knows that modern art is experimental. 45.and.4xThe art historian Dore Ashton would observe that Paalen had “begun to question his allegiance to surrealism” after his “discovery of the philosophy of John Dewey.. Motherwell had read Art ns Experience and considered it “one of my early bibles.. Robert Motherwell: The Formative Years (AnnArbor: UMI ResearchPrcss. 46. 1986). practicing painter” (AEP.. 125. . Motherwell had studied philosophy at Stanford and Harvard and later art history at Columbia with Meyer Schapiro. Mattison concluded that “Dewey thus became one source for Motherwell’s early understanding of art as a process of abstract relationships which communicate emotion^. Dewey figured prominently. Motherwell shared his enthusiasm for Dewey with his fellow artists. .” Seitz was an intimate of the Abstract Expressionists and was able to interview six artists in depth in relation to their work: Motherwell. Ibid. Seitz was to conclude that “the idea of the creative process” as practiced by the Abstract Expressionists was “an aesthetic close to John Dewey’s Art as Experience (AEP. Ibid. immediately felt.John Dewey’s whole philosophy. the legendary watering hole of the Abstract Expressionists.li Mattison would observe that “even the rough. xii). De Kooning. were painting” (AEP.”49 Another key document that surfaced in 1983 was the belated publication of William Seitz’s 1955 dissertation at Princeton. Seitz was “not only a skilled scholar” but also a “talented.. The N e w York School: A Culturril Reckoning (New York: Penguin Books). Tavern..1930s. In Motherwell’s words.” is just another name for expcrimentalism. Rothko. an important link between Dewey and the New York School.”~~ Con- sequently. 6-7. Indeed. “Abstract Expressionist Painting in America. 47.pp.p. could be an expression of the inner sclf . being a “very young employee” at the WPA/FAP. “radical empiricism.He concluded that “Seitz’s book remains unsurpassed” (AEP. Seitz’s dissertation profited by his unique relation to the Abstract Expressionist painters... p.p. He had taken the same route as many of the Abstract Expressionists. Ibid. 7. xii). He informed Mattison that he introduced the surrealist Wolfgang Paalen to the philosophy of John Dewey. He was a habituC of the two key Greenwich Village haunts of the Abstract Expressionists: The Cedar St. Dore Ashton.

too.” she wrote.p. a discussion group formed in 1949 by these painters where art and other intellectual subjects were analyzed. xvii).’ Alfred North Whitehead’s ’process. “Seitz was working at a time when Dewey’s Art A S Experience could be found in many studios‘’ (AEP.. and patronized the Cedar Bar and was an occasional speaker at The Club. Although influenced by some of the Surrealists with their automatic art. She also was friendly with Seitz. p. or in Dewey’s terms a “blueprint” that “has to be moving with constant change in its development” (AEP.Indeed. the classic revisionist was De Kooning. Moreover. but also at the gatherings of The Club’’ (AEP. Seitz interwove his interviews with the artists with his analysis of their work. They revised considerably from an initial idea or emotion. having visited him at Princeton while he was researching his study. 152). he acts mechanically and repeats some old model fixed like a blueprint in his mind . she was married to a painter. who painted his work over a number of times. xvii).. most notably the first Woman series. Ashton herself was part of the scene as a young art critic for the New York Times. Seitz‘s changes of address for 1951-1954at Princeton were listed three times in the records of sculptor Philip Pavia.p. noted the Dewey influence: “Whereas in subsequent years the influence of John Dewey waned and later scholars tended to overlook him as a source. the Abstract Expressionists went beyond pure automatism. Ashton observed that Seitz was a “creative witness to the period” who was “an alert chronicler of the animated exchanges that occurred informally at the Cedar Bar.’ and Paul Klee’s naturalism” (AEP.The real work of an artist is to build up an experience that is coherent in perception while moving with coilstant change in its development” [AEP. then to John Dewey’s concept of “art as experience” (AEP. 96). Ashton described Seitz’s process as follows: In selecting a passage to present his artists in relation to Dewey’s thought he retrieved an important element.p.jo In her introduction to Seitz’s book. 96).p. Pavia.p. 7).” .BERUHE Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists 221 The Club. Seitz described the content of the paintings of the Abstract Expres- sionists as essentially emotions: “The emotional qualities in the works of these people have been translated into the terms of their medium’’ so that “in John 50. p.p. xvii).Indeed. Ashton. Seitz noted that “the importance of revising a conception during its growth is stressed by John Dewey” and that Dewey ”would not have condoned automatic beginnings” (AEP.. He perceived that Dewey‘s influence seemed to be strongest in the formative period of the creative process. He noted early on that Motherwell “was first attracted to the theory of art as a student of philosophy at Stanford and Harvard Universities. John Dewey’s ‘art as experience. “The Records of The Club. Seitz observed that a characteristic of these painters was an “emphasis on process rather than comple- tion” and that this was “closely related in spirit to Henri Bergson’s ellan vital. In discussing the creative process of the Abstract Expressionists. which Dore Ashton was to call “a significant force in the making of a movement” (AEP. who managed The C1ub. xvii). His quotation of Dewey is to the point: “If the artist does not perfect a new vision in his process of doing.

14 July 1997. [The lecturer’s] name was Rifkin. A n Ernoliond M e m o i r of Franz Klinc ( N ew York: Pantheon. 17 October 1996. 23 May 1996. Some artists I knew read him. also a friend of Pollock’s and De Kooning’s among others.i1 In response to my written inquiry. . a close friend of Jackson Pollock and De Kooning. Dore Ashton recalled that the Surrealist and friend of Motherwell. Especially about the Primitive arts. but not many. One early name for the Ahstract Exprcssionists was the Tenth Street School because that was where many of th e artists’ studios wcrc located.222 EDUCATIONAL THEORY 48 / NUMBER SPRINC1998 / VOLUME 2 Dewey’s sense. Matta.’ of reducing painting to a form of indiscreet catharis” (AEP. .”iX 51.. 18 November 1996. a Black Mountain writer and painter on the scene and a surrogate son to Franz Kline. Dore Ashton to Maurice R. 55. the emotion is aesthetic” ( A E P . Elaine De Kooning. the Abstract Expressionists’ emphasis on the emotional content of their painting led them to be accused of. In answer to my written inquiry. . Ibid. Beruhe. My own investigations corroborate that Dewey‘s Art as Experience was read and discussed by a number of Abstract Expressionists.. In response to my written inquiry.all the expatriates knew Dewey wcll. 92). One key figure was Philip Pavia. 92). I was a young graduate student at New York University in 1956 living on 10th St. 1967). Berubc.” Another surviving member of this generation was the painter Milton Resnick. “‘emptying their guts in public. Philip Pavia to Maurice R.. Pavia recalled that regarding Dewey’s Art as Experience and the Abstract Expression- ists. 56. Fielding Dawson.”52 I also contacted surviving members of the first generation of Abstract Expres- sionists. 52. p. 54.”j4And one of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists painters. Bcrube. Fielding Dawson to Maurice R. But when I was a student i n Paris i n t h e 1930s. Berube. ’ Dawson stated that he was ”sure A r t as Experience was discussed at The Club. was “‘influenced’ by Dewey and probably engaged Gorky’s interest as well” and that “at least several” of the Abstract Expressionists “did refer to Dewey. off Uiiivcrsity Place studying Dewey among others.since it‘s very difficult to mix educational theory and art. I patronized the Cedar Tavern until it closed in 1963 and had a passing acquaintance with a nuinbcr of the artists. He explained some very important parts of Dewey. and maybe [Philip] G ~ s t o n .561nhis response to my inquiry. Resnickreplied (throughhis painter wife Pat Passlof) that he had ”never read Dewey’’ but that most of his “artist friends were self-taught but pretty well read” and “remembered that Dewey was discussed” although for some he was ”disliked. Pat Passlof [wife of Milton Resnick) to Maurice R.. p. he read a lot” and that other New York School painters read Dewey such as ”Jack Tworkov.55 Fielding Dawson. 58. sculptor and manager of The Club. wrote me saying that he had read Art as Experience.One of the first lectures we had in our Club was on Dewey’s Art as Experience. . Berubc. They confirmed that Dewey was discussed by the artists. Dawson was “sure that De Kooning read Art as Experience. Motherwell for sure. recalled that some of these painters were familiar with Dewey. in Seitz’s words. Norman Bluhni to Maurice R. Norman Bluhm. 28 July 1997. ” ~Moreover. 57. In short. 53.

114. Udo Kultermann.” 64. Dewey acknowledged Schapiro‘s contribution. . 62..the emotional excitement” of his pupils. Rothko observed that “the progressive school is a symbol of liberalism” and that “progressive education is the expression of liberalism. Murk Rothko. The Brooklyn Jewish Center Academy was based on Dewey’s progressive education theories: “The staff believed that Dewey was God. Breslin. stating that he had asked Schapiro ”to make suggestions which I have freely adopted’’ (AE. Schapiro nevertheless emphasized ‘experience’ in his analysis of a work of art’s quality. Ibid. In the journal he kept some time in the late 1930s)The Scribble Book.”64Describing Abstract Expressionism in 1957. Mark Rothko. the university hired him to teach art history in the late 1920s.Rothko taught painting to children at the Brooklyn Jewish Center Academy. ”and came down from heaven to reveal his theory of education. 23. Schapiro was to employ Deweyan terms: “The artist came to believe that what was essential in art . John Dewey invited his junior colleague to review a draft of Art as Experience.”iYRothko was thoroughly at home with Dewey’s ideas. 63. Schapiro read two of the last chapters on art philosophy and criticism.6zIndeed. that they speak to us in a 59.” where Rothko perceived his function to be to “stimulate. Rothlto.. in The Scribble Book. Schapiro was a child of the progressive era. Schapiro attended the Hebrew Settlement House in Brownsville. albeit for the affluent. And as art historian Udo Kultermann pointed out. 61. Meyer Schapiro “was under the spell of the great philosopher [and]while not directly referring to Dewey.p.. According to another of his pupils. Breslin. 113. Rothko‘s art classes were “very freewheeling. James E.were two universal requirements . a quality of unity [and]that the forms and colors chosen have a decided expressive physiognomy. p.BEKURE Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists 223 Another Abstract Expressionist exposed to Dewey‘s ideas was Rothko.” in Archives of Americcin Arl [Washington. “The Scribble Book.”6”Rothko’s biographer.: Smithsonian. where he was the only art student of the painter John Sloan of the Ashcan School. . concluded that Rothko was a “liberal who shared the academy‘s commitment to progressive methods in Moreover. For nearly twenty years (1929-1946). ”John Dewey’s Art us Experience: A Revaluation of Aesthetic Pragmatism!” Art Criticism.””j An important link between Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists was the art historian Meyer Schapiro. vii). He provided a bridge between Dewey’s ideas and the artists of the New York School. late 1930s). Breslin. Mark Rothko..C. New York City. and the progressive school.[an] order or coherence. “The Scribble Book. 60. 1990.D. Rothko’s art classes reflected the idea of emotion in art that Dewey proposed in Art as Experience.B.” one former student observed. which was modeled on the progressive settlement house. Rothko would mull over the idea in his painting of ”an emotional expression- ist objective tendency. 113.. a colleague of Dewey’s at Columbia and a friend to the Abstract Expressionists.. While completing his doctoral work at Columbia.

and that it was the beginning “from which other successes would surely One other key influence of Dewey was in the WPA/FAP.”h7 Schapiro also introduced Motherwell to the emigre Surrealists in New York. 4 March 1996. 1979). Clyfford Still. Barnett Newman. and Gorky. “The Papers of Ad Reinhardt. Ad Reinhardt. De Kooning. Adolph Gottlieb. 71. 69. that it did not necessarily mean. Among them were Pollock. Emile de Antonio. 67. N e w York Times. for Pollock. Two of his students at Columbia were Reinhardt and Robert Motherwell. Modern Art: Selected Pupers 19th aiid 20th Centuries [New York George Brazillier.”h6 Schapiro was familiar to the emerging Abstract Expressionists. Rothko. N e w York Times. A significant number of future Abstract Expressionists worked in the Federal Arts Projects.” Archives o{ American Artists (Washington.: Smithsonian. D10.”hi Again.C. D.”hR And. his lectures at the New School on modern art from 1936-1952 “had a particular importance for artists. Schapiro noted that the purpose of this art is ”the occasion of spontaneity or intense feeling. Holger Cahill. 218. 70.in that they coincided with the development of a New York school of painting that was to win widespread international acclaim. 72. 66. 19721.”69 Schapiro was a regular speaker at the panel discussions of The Club. The Federal Arts Program was imbued with the Deweyan aesthetic by its administrator. Reinhardt 1istedDewey in his class notes under the “post-impression- istic aesthetic. hid.”72And Schapiro encouraged De Kooning in his development by proclaiming that the artists’ Woman 1 was a masterpiece and not a failure. 1940s). 4 March 1996. who would recall the insight Schapiro had for him in developing his art: ”The issue for me and I think it existed for all the fellows. therefore.7”One such painter was Barnett Newman. for Gottlieb [was]what are we going to paint.224 EDUCATIONAL THEORY SPRING 48 1 NUMRER 1998 / VOLUME 2 feeling-chargedwhole. film. that there was no subject matter. Ihid.”” He credited Schapiro with making the distinction between “a subject in painting” and ”the objects of a work” so that even though Newman’s abstractions “did not have any of the [representational] objects. Motherwell consid- ered his relation to Schapiro “the single most decisive factor in my development. Ibid. Painters Painting [New York: New Video. D10.. . In his survey course on art history. Meyer Schapiro.. . D10. 73. Also. Guston.215. 68. Cahill credited ”John Dewey and his pupils and followers [with] the greatest importance in developing American resources in the arts” through their influence among teachers in schools 65. 4 March 1996. N e w York Times. ” according to New York Times art critic John Russell. which Motherwell ranked “as the second most important factor in my orientation. Reinhardt included Dewey in his lectures at Brooklyn College. as the painter had thought . Brooks.

influenced the development of art education.”’~ Reflecting on the WPAIFAP in 1939 at Dewey‘s eightieth birthday celebration. Ihid. Art for the Millions. His ideas on the teaching of art. O’Conner of the Smithsonian Institution. Phi Delta Kappan. Holger Cahill. Ihid. which began with his Laboratory School in 1896. Francis V.”x0 74.and secondarily a product. He came away from his very first lecture with Dewey in the summer of 1914 with a seminal idea that he would try to operationalize when he created the WPA/FAP in 1935. unfettered expression of a young mind not yet bound by the restraints of narrative or pictorial representation. until the 1970s.. no.. ” ’ ~ DEWEY AND ARTEDUCATION Dewey also exerted a great influence over the development of art education in the nation’s schools and universities for over half a century. 75. 80.” in Art for the Millions. ’What is it?‘It’s the spontane- ous. 77. Indeed.And it is reasonable to speculate that the work of the Abstract Expressionists.. One of these is the Mexican mural program. he was determined to shape the FAP with the Deweyan vision of art ”as a mode of interaction between man and his en~ironment. “What do you mean.’~Therefore. 79.This is due partly to the fact that they are sound. workable ideas. 76.. at least reinforced Deweyan ideas. 5 [January 1997):353..have been taken as plans of action. concluded that Cahill **sawthe Project he created and administered as a translation of [Dewey’s]philosophic ideas into a program of a ~ t i o n . if it did not directly influence the teaching of art in the schools.. “American Resources in the Arts. 19731.'^ Cahill had studied with Dewey at Columbia University. . who discovered and finally published Cahill’s report some thirty years after it was written. .”” Years later he would conclude that “it seems to me that the ideas of John Dewey. ed..”78 From Dewey’s A r t as Experience Cahill culled the grand idea that art was primarily a process . A kindergartner has just finished a painting in the manner of Abstract Expressionism with blobs of paint seemingly in an unfinished canvas and informs his teacher. 33.He recalled that Dewey was “speaking of the fact that philosophical ideas have a way of getting translated into programs of action. Francis V.. illustrated this point. 37... Ibid. as recently as 1997. in some form. O’Conner [Boston:New York Graphic Society. Ibid. O’Conner. 17.an experience . a cartoon in the academic journal for school teachers and administrators. .The other is the philosopher John Dewey . and had become part of the thought patterns of hundreds of American artist^. in turn. 78. but is also due to the fact that they are very much in the American grain..BERUBE Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists 225 [suchas R~thko). Cahill summarized the results of the government program in the arts: At its very beginning it received the impetus of two powerful forces which helped to establish its character.The ideas of John Dewey had influenced teachers in every section of the country. 39. Phi Delta Kappun 78.

244-45. claimed Dewey as an antecedent of their child-centered school. 1990). 169. and rooted in a child’s experience as he or she develops naturally out of a Rousseauean conception of the inner grace of childhood. 82. Dewey enunciated the principle that art be a major part of the curriculum. Some progressive educators in the 1920s. Dewey’s ideas on art education were assimilated in various degrees by other movements in American art education. Richard Rorty to Maurice R. For Rugg and Shumaker. Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching Visual Arts. Arthur D. . He perceived the nature of the artistic experience as an opportunity to develop personally as well as communally. but departed from the great philosopher by emphasizing only personal growth in a child’s artistic development.x’In his account of the Laboratory School experiment. the idea was mainly to encourage creative self- expression. art education should develop “first-hand experience [that]will enable [the student] to express himself in a variety of artistic forms. Elfand charts the course of Deweyan ideas in the formation of art education in the United States.’‘~~ If so. there is no evidence to suggest that Dewey either favored or disliked their art.226 EDUCATIONAL THEORY 1998 / VOLUME SPRING 48 1 NUMRER 2 In his study. 83. from Black Mountain to Yale. either on a part-time or full-time basis before their work sold well (after Pollock’s death in 1956). For Dewey. such as Harold Rugg and Ann Shumaker. Arthur D. Elfand. Rothko taught in such a progressive school where Deweyan ideas were paramount. A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching Visual Arts {NewYork: Teachers College Press. 10 May 1996.”83 Cahill had pointed out that the art teachers in the schools in his generation of the 1920s and 1930s were imbued with Deweyan ideas. which continued the emphasis on creative self-expression. ignoring Dewey’s emphasis on community. Beruhe. there is no written record of his reaction to his experience of Abstract 81. Indeed. a significant number of Abstract Expressionists taught art in colleges and universities. h i d . CONCLUSION Did John Dewey approve of the Abstract Expressionists? Although there was overlap between their signature breakthroughs and the last years of Dewey’s life. The Deweyan philosopher Richard Rorty speculates that ”it’spossible that Dewey might have been taken to a relevant gallery by Meyer Schapiro or Clement (2reenbe1-g. As quoted in Elfand.”X‘Dewey saw the arts as an integral part of the curriculum and taught in a related manner with other subjects. In turn. 84. A H i s f o r y of Art Education. A History of Art Education. and the Arts-in-Education movement of the late 1960s and 1 9 7 0 ~ which ~ advocated art as “‘an experience’ to be had by participating in the artistic process. Arthur Elfand’s A History of Art Education describes two other art education movements that had some roots in Dewey’s thought: The Expressionist Stream in the 1930s and 1940s. .

Perhaps Dewey was more comfortable with art theory than with art itself. Alan Ryan.” And in January 1951. Whatever Dewey’s personal response to Abstract Expressionism may have been.H6Indeed. conducted a search (atmy request) of Dewey’s ‘‘correspondence database as well as the complete text of T h e Later Works. April Kingsley. I I ‘ ~ Abstract Expressionists and the Trmnsforrnation of Aniericnn Art 88.W. 19951. 264-65.” the most famous of New York School painters in Dewey’s last years. The T L I ~ I I IPolnt: [Ncw York: Simon and Schuster. the evidence suggests that John Dewey provided a distinctive American voice to the development of one of the major world art movements of the twentieth century. 86. Director of the Center for Dewey Studies.”XH Yet. however. ‘/Is He The Greatest Living Painter?” A short three months later. 87. 85.”K7 Yet. Larry Hickman to Maurice R. Ashton does not recall ”Dewey commenting on the Abstract Expres- sionist artists. Dewey was profiled in the same pages on his ninetieth birthday: “Life Congratulates Dewey. The most popular magazine of the day. Iohn D e w e y and the High Tide of Anierican Lihcrulisni (New York: W. Larry Hickman. Life.” leaving the reader of the book to have “little sense of exactly how he would have set about it.” Abstract Expressionists who had protested the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s discrimination against modern American artists. 24 June 1996.BERURE Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists 227 Expressionism. Berube. had profiled Pollock in August of 1949 with the provocative title. the year that art historian April Kingsley called “the turning point” when “Abstract Expressionism finally took shape. Dewey’s article merely restated his art theories. the British philosopher Alan Ryan concluded in his study of Dewey that Art as Experience was a “curious work” since “Dewey never analyzed a painting or poem at length. 1992J. Dewey contributed an article in 1950 to the Tournal o f Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Life had featured a classic picture of the eighteen ”Irascibles. and found no mention either of Abstract Expressionism or Jackson Pollock. it is inconceivable that Dewey would have been unaware of the emergence of the New York School. Ashton to Berube. .”8i Moreover. Norton.