World War II had a shattering effect on Americans. News of the war was unremitting, disseminated by newspapers, magazines, newsreels, radio, photographs, films and posters, and above all, by letters from millions of servicemen, who were represented by blue stars in the windows of their homes, growing numbers of which were changed to gold, indicating a dead husband or son. Only a few of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists served in the armed forces–most were overage–but all were intensely aware of the approximately 16 million Americans who were serving, and the hundreds of thousands who were being killed. The war, which followed earlier plagues–World War I, Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism and the Spanish Civil War–defined the 20th century. Morton Feldman, a composer and friend of avant-garde painters, once wrote, “[William] Byrd without Catholicism, Bach without Protestantism, and Beethoven without the Napoleonic ideal, would be minor figures.” 3 So would Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still and, with the exception of Hans Hofmann, the other leading Abstract Expressionists without the omnipresent World War II and the subsequent Cold War. Feldman concluded, “It is precisely this element of ‘propaganda’–precisely this reflection of a zeitgeist–that gives the work of these men its myth-like stature.”4 The Abstract Expressionists did not illustrate the hot or cold wars. Instead, they internalized the political and social situation and asserted that their painting was essentially a subjective or inward-looking process. What they ended up expressing was the tragic mood as they felt it of the decade–an embodied mood.
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