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McCarthyism: Art Caught in the Crossfire

on June 19, 2023

A Brief Interlude into Art History

In the tumultuous era of McCarthyism during the mid-20th century, even the realm of art found itself entangled in the web of political scrutiny. Abstract Expressionism, a movement celebrated for its innovative and emotive qualities, became an unexpected target. McCarthyist fervor sought to conflate artistic abstraction with political subversion, seeing hidden meanings in the seemingly chaotic canvases.

Members of the House Un-American Activities Committee HUAC in 1948

Members of the House Un-American Activities Committee HUAC, 1948.

Abstract Expressionist artists, known for their non-representational and emotionally charged works, faced suspicion and accusations of promoting anti-American ideologies. The movement's emphasis on individualism and freedom of expression clashed with the conformist expectations of the time. The art scene became a battleground, with figures like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko finding themselves under intense scrutiny.

abstract expressionism artist jackson pollock

'Blue Poles' by Jackson Pollock, 1952.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) alleged that abstract art harbored covert messages sympathetic to communism. Critics and politicians, misunderstanding the movement's quest for personal expression, deemed it as a threat to traditional American values.

abstract expressionists in 1951

Abstract Expressionist artists known as 'The Irascibles', 1951. 

McCarthyism's impact on Abstract Expressionism was a complex intersection of art and politics, highlighting the vulnerability of creative expression during times of political paranoia. Despite the challenges, Abstract Expressionism ultimately prevailed, standing as a testament to the resilience of art against ideological suppression.


Pete Stein
Founder, Galerie Stein

Galerie Stein will be presenting several contemporary Abstract Expressionist artists both virtually at and in our gallery in Montreal in 2024.
Contact: Pete Stein at