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The Irascibles: Abstract Expressionists and Political Activism

on December 04, 2023

The Irascibles were a group of mid-century American abstract artists who challenged the status quo of the art world and advocated for the recognition of avant-garde movements. Led by iconic figures like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, the Irascibles represented a collective defiance against the conservative art establishment of their time.

the irascibles group of 18 mid-20th century abstract artists

The Irascibles, 1950, photo published in Life magazine.
Front row: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko.
Middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin.
Back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne.

At the heart of their defiance was a political statement—a demand for recognition and acceptance of abstract art as a legitimate form of artistic expression. In 1950, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City hosted an exhibition titled "American Painting Today," which largely ignored abstract art. The Irascibles responded. They penned a manifesto and boycotted the exhibition, highlighting the institutional bias against abstract artists and calling for greater inclusion and representation in the art world.

The irascibles' open letter to roland l. redmond of the metropolitan museum of art 1950

Their collective action not only brought attention to the marginalization of abstract artists but also ignited a broader conversation about the role of art in society and the need for artistic freedom and autonomy. The Irascibles' defiant stance reverberated beyond the confines of the art world, sparking discussions about artistic censorship, cultural elitism, and the power dynamics of institutional spaces.

Ultimately, the Irascibles' activism laid the groundwork for the eventual acceptance and mainstream recognition of Abstract Expressionism as a revolutionary artistic movement, solidifying their legacy as both artistic innovators and agents of change in American society.

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