Road Trip: Sedona and Abstract Expressionism

Rocks at Palatki ruins, Sedona

In Sedona, it was easy to see the birth of Abstract Expressionism all around us. That sounds strange, even as I write it, because the movement is so closely associated with New York. But many of the painters were actually from, or lived in, the American West, (including Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko), and it’s easy to see echoes of the look and feel of Abstract Expressionism everywhere.

Walking through the red rocks of Sedona, seeing their textures, their edgy contours, the rich color combinations of rocks, dust, and sky–it’s easy to see how sights like these could have influenced them. The open spaces, the color and shapes point me towards abstract paintings I’ve seen, as well as others I’ve seen only in my mind. But I can also feel a rugged pioneering spirit, the mythology of the West, that also seems to make itself known in many paintings, especially in form and technique: bigger-than-life canvases, the invention of Pollock’s drip-paintings, the unconventional use of non-precious materials such as housepaint or whatever was on hand.

The idea of “the monumental,” of universal ideas and mythologies, rather than the personal or a specific narrative; surface; color (especially a field of color); process; and the relationship that existed between creator and artwork: I see evidence of all of this, as a small human walking in a beautiful but sometimes stark land, that has been shaped by rushing water, thrusting rock formations, and blowing wind. Those rough edges and reminders of strong natural forces made the landscape feel very masculine (despite what we were told about the feminine energy of the vortices in and around Sedona), which was also another essence of Abstract Expressionism. And, while we’re on that topic, I was also reminded many times of the movie Thelma and Louise, with its testosterone-rich visual images (oil wells driving into the land, crop dusters spraying fertilizer or pesticides, etc) that served as visual foils for the two women on the run.

Here are some side-by-side comparisons of my photos of Sedona, along with Abstract Expressionist paintings–see for yourself!

Barnet Newman

Barnet Newman was famous for what he called his “zip” paintings, featuring a band of color that interrupted a field of a different, analogous color.

Rock wall with natural vertical strip running down it.
Rock wall with natural formations, at Palatki ruins, Sedona
Abstract painting featuring a rough, vertical stripe down the middle.
Barnet Newman, Onement I, 1948, 27 1/4″ x 16 1/4″

Clyfford Still

Still was noted for his use of impasto and texture, based on rock formations and natural forms.

Patches of moss on the surface of a rock create an organic, abstract pattern.
Rock at Palatki ruins, Sedona
Abstract painting features patches of colors seeming to grow from a larger background color.
Clyfford Still, Untitled, 1948-1949.

Jackson Pollock

Pollock is famous for dripping paint all over the surface of his canvases. The mineral deposits, left by dripping water, have created many patterns on the ceiling of this rock overhang at the Palatki ruins site in Sedona which resemble the “all-over” paint application, made by dripping paint, of Jackson Pollock’s best-known works.

Mineral deposits create areas of different colors and seeming drips on rock face.
Mineral deposits on cave ceiling, Palatki ruins, Sedona
Magazine spread shows defiantly confident, denim-clad Jackson Pollock leaning against one of his paintings

Pictographs

Pictographs (paintings on cave walls) seem to echo aspects of early work by painters like Mark Rothko and Pollock, whose early paintings took their imagery from sources like mythology, dreams and Jungian philosophy, and Surrealism. The pictographs in Sedona, made by either the Sinagua people (approx 650 AD) or an Archaic people who inhabited Sedona from 3000-6000 years ago, seem to share a creative impulse with some of these early paintings.

Pictograph from rock wall in Arizona.
More pictographs, Palatki ruins
Detail of abstract painting with ancient symbols and marks on rock-like textured surface.
Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf, detail

I’ve enjoyed Abstract Expressionism for a long time, but it was a wonderful thing to actually feel it around me. Next up is a trip to MoMA, to see if the paintings feel different now in that familiar, but domesticated, environment.

Rock wall at Palatki ruins

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