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Surrealists in New York

Atelier 17 and the Birth of Abstract Expressionism

Charles Darwent


An absorbing group biography revealing how exiles from war-torn France brought Surrealism to America, helping to shift the centre of the art world from Paris to New York and spark the movement that became Abstract Expressionism

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In 1957 the American artist Robert Motherwell made an unexpected claim: ‘I have only known two painting milieus well … the Parisian Surrealists, with whom I began painting seriously in New York in 1940, and the native movement that has come to be known as “abstract expressionism”, but which genetically would have been more properly called “abstract surrealism”.’

Motherwell’s bold assertion, that Abstract Expressionism was neither new nor local, but born of a brief liaison between America and France, verged on the controversial. Surrealists in New York tells the story of this ‘liaison’ and the European exiles who bought Surrealism with them – an artistic exchange between the Old World and the New – centring on taciturn printmaker Stanley William Hayter and the legendary Atelier 17 print studio he founded. Here artists’ experiments literally pushed the boundaries of modern art. It was in Hayter’s studio that Jackson Pollock found the balance of freedom and control that would culminate in his distinctive drip paintings.

The impact of Max Ernst, André Masson, Louise Bourgeois and other noted émigrés on the work of Motherwell, Pollock, Mark Rothko and the American avant-garde has for too long been quietly written out of art history. Drawing on first-hand documents, interviews and archive materials, Charles Darwent brings to life the events and personalities from this crucial encounter. In so doing, he reveals a fascinating new perspective on the history of the art of the twentieth century.

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'I couldn’t believe the book hadn’t been written'
Robert Storr, art historian and ex-MoMA curator

'Charles Darwent’s Surrealists in New York shows that Surrealism, not Expressionism, was the European mode that was truly abstracted in New York ... Darwent’s book … tells the real story'
Literary Review

'It is a bold claim that the most influential abstract expressionist was an English geologist, but one he [Darwent] proves persuasively, using detail laced with drollness'
Sunday Times

'A very readable and accessible account of a hitherto unexplored area of mainstream art history ... an important book on two counts: for its welcome reassessment of Hayter, and for the light it sheds on the links between the Surrealists and the Abstract Expressionists. Certainly it subtly alters the landscape of modern American art. Darwent writes authoritatively, marshalling a wide range of entertaining anecdotes and quotations to sustain his thesis'
The Spectator

World of Interiors

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 23.4 x 15.3 cm

Extent: 264 pp

Illustrations: 93

Publication date: 16 March 2023

ISBN: 9780500094266

About the Author

Charles Darwent is a writer and regular contributor to the Guardian, The Art Newspaper and Art Review and was The Independent on Sunday’s chief art critic from 1999 to 2013. He appeared in the Netflix series Raiders of the Lost Art from 2014 to 2016. His biography Josef Albers - described by Tate Modern Director Frances Morris as 'lively, lucid, compelling and revealing' - was published by Thames & Hudson in 2018.

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