“The Irascibles,” New York, 1950. Front row, from left: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James C. 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. Photo: Nina Leen/Getty Images.

ABSTRACT: LITERALLY, “TO PULL AWAY.” EXPRESS: “TO PUSH FORTH.” Did Robert Coates, the critic who gave Abstract Expressionism its current usage in 1946 (it had previously been applied to the work of Kandinsky), sense the etymological contradiction? Probably not. Was it a coincidence that he was reviewing the paintings of Hans Hofmann, known for his “push-pull” theory of composition? Probably. For Coates, the term was simply more “polite” than “spatter-and-daub school of painting.”

The Abstract Expressionists often insisted that their work had a subject, which meant that it was neither abstract (in the sense of being nonrepresentational, purely formal) nor expressive (in the sense of being immediate, crylike). The term must have seemed as misguided to them as Cubism had to Picasso, who responded by adding bouillon cubes to his work. It may be preferable to Harold Rosenberg’s

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