There is an unexplored relationship between the expansion of the American West and contemporary abstraction in painting.
The American West and the opening of the West to exploration and expansion were filled with mythology and bravado, plus a great deal of inaccurate reporting.
The Western territories were already inhabited in the 16th and 17th centuries by Native Americans who were tribal and of course did not refer to themselves as Indians or Americans.
And while the Territorial Expansion was not fair minded or kind in any fashion, it did allow Europeans and individuals from around the world to find a part of the world that was full of promise, enormous in its geographic range and chock full of nearly impossible possibilities.
Europe had for centuries been developed in its architecture and cultural agendas and its peoples located in a kind of caste system that could limit creativity. This is not to say that Europe did not develop some of the greatest painters in the world between the 15th and 20th centuries. But there was a kind of limited thinking in terms of scale and the possibilities of what pearly open space could do to affect the artistic imagination.
There is relationship, in other words, between the amount of space that people inhabit and how very wide they can spread their wings and fly.
Artists working in Europe had limited space physically, culturally and mentally
The artists working in tight channels in Europe, in city lanes and wrapped around mountain villages, with few exceptions, did not have the space or the imagination to think far outside the historical and architectural limitations of their space. A city in Italy even in the 17the century was already quite developed with stone walls and walks (and a mindset as well) that was culturally limiting with strong religious and social conventions. In 17th century Europe, if your father was a shoemaker there was strong probability that you too would be a shoemaker.
The American West in its seemingly endless vastness, encouraged American Painters who came over to this New Land, which while not really new, appeared to those who came across the ocean to be “new” both physically and conceptually. This land prodded painters over time to expand their creative horizons in terms of scale and the workings of the brush.
Expanding the depth and breadth of painting
The great Abstract Painters of the 50’s who mostly congregated and worked in New York, without exception, expanded the depth and breadth and scale of their work when they moved west. Once again for the most part, the more space available, the better able they were to spread their wings and work on a scale that was not really possible or much foreseen in the tight quarters and rabbit warrens of Europe.
Certainly earthworks and the kind of vast architecture and artistic projects by Michael Heizer and others in the 60’s would not have been possible without the miles and miles of open territory that the American West provided.
One wonders if Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko would have worked across so broad a surface if they were working in Paris just after the War.
In the American art scene, the depth and breadth of painting was no longer hampered.
A Painter inhabits the space within which he or she works and is influenced by the space around them. The American West encouraged a kind of spatial exploration and freedom that was hampered by the overdevelopment of Europe.
Freed from constraints, a Painter approaches a large empty canvas with great excitement and trepidation. He or she may move into abstract forms just as Rothko or Heizer found the space to explore openly.
One soars into this vast space, where everything becomes possible.