This week, a new show at the Saatchi Gallery in London will throw a spotlight on abstract art, with a group show of paintings and sculptures by young artists from America who are responding to a form of abstraction that was invented there more than half a century ago.
The story goes something like this. After the Second World War, Paris, art capital of the Western world, suddenly lost the right to call itself the guardian of the newest of the new in art. Tired in spirit, humiliated by occupation, and with many of the artists and dealers either dead or fled, the torch, by the beginning of the 1950s, passed to New York, where a group loosely labelled the Abstract Expressionists were beginning to make very loud claims for themselves. And, even more important, were beginning to have very loud claims made on their behalf.
Abstract Expressionism was, in part, about spontaneity, lavish painterly gesture, the freeing-up of the native American spirit. In common with the ambitions of Surrealism, it was an attempt to set free the creativity that was locked inside every human mind. The various artists associated with this group included Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. In fact, they were making two quite different kinds of abstract art. One kind seems more like frenzied calligraphy, often on a giant scale. Pollock was the man whose spirit embodied it. He laid his canvases on the floor, poured paint directly on to them, and then danced around. It was pure, wild, colourful and undeniably expressive.
The other strand, which includes Motherwell and Reinhardt were making abstract marks in a very particular, if not narrow, way. There's no whooping and shrieking here. The art is extremely severe and unyielding and unsmiling. We are suffering, it seems to say. Our work is being extruded from us with the utmost pain. These artists often work on a giant scale: tremendous, gaunt slashings and shiverings of black against white. Many of them do not do colour. They do not do exuberance either. They do not do frivolity or popular entertainment of any kind. They do not do the outside world, not at all. Any resemblance between what you see in their paintings and the living or the dead seems purely accidental.
And then, from the early 1960s onwards, came a second wave, which included Brice Marden, Frank Stella, Carl Andre and Donald Judd. This second group were dubbed Minimalists by various enterprising art commentators, ever ready to neaten up and categorise the daily, pell-mell flux of things. The Minimalists lightened things up a little. Here are some of what you might loosely call minimalist "doctrines": be truthful to the materials you are using. Do as little as possible with what you are given. Change it barely at all. Be as anonymous as possible. Pretend to be a maker of something that could just as easily get made on the factory floor. Don't make loud claims for yourself. Keep it pure, simple, true. Don't try to imitate anything else. Dress like a blue-collar worker.
Now it is within the context of this almost surprisingly complicated, and almost self-contradictory, mixture of self-abnegation and self-celebration within the various strands of post-war American abstraction that we need to view this new generation of young American artists. And, yes, they are doing abstraction, all right, just like their artistic forefathers before them, but the spirit and the feel of this work could not be more different from what was happening in New York and elsewhere from the 1940s through to the 1960s. Is it correct, then, to call these young artists heirs to all those who went before? It's both true and misleading in just about equal measure. These new ones have been touched by influences unavailable to their predecessors, the most significant of which is cyberspace, whose manifold seductions we can fall prey to at any time of the day or night, and where we can be everywhere and nowhere all at once. Cyberspace turns life into a non-stop collage of fleeting impressions, and the spirit and cacophony of cyberspace permeates this work.
Non-stop. That is a very important idea for these young artists. If you listened in on their conversational buzz, you would probably hear something like this: "Yes, this is something I've made, but it could just as easily be something else, and it may become so in due course. I call myself a painter now, but the fact is that I'm a multi-media guy/gal of whatever I choose to make, and what I choose to make it out of is what happens to become available to me..."
This feels like work which is gloriously impure, and polluted by the world that surrounds it. It's a kind of "snatch it from here, there and everywhere" kind of work. Artists are natural scavengers, but these artists are experts at it. This work contains elements of story-telling, something that would have been anathema to the Abstract Impressionists, who wanted to purge art of the superficiality of narrative to get to the essence of stark sign-making. This is an art which has the capacity to laugh at itself and the art world of which it is a part. It feels looser and freer and, well, funnier too. It makes time for casualness and superficiality because life in part consists of those things. It does not feel sufficient unto itself.
Which brings us to another interesting issue which is seldom talked about by either art critics or artists, because it is a very awkward one. It is, however, very pertinent to this show. What are you supposed to be thinking about when you look at an abstract painting? I once put the question to the celebrated American abstract painter Brice Marden when we were staring together at a particularly gorgeous sequence of looping-the-loops. He laughed, slightly uncomfortably, and told me that he often thought about his daughters. Was he confessing to some kind of act of self-betrayal? But how do you think about patterning which, to some degree, seems to relate only to itself? How long does it take before you start thinking about your daughters?
The fact is that in this new show, you are actively being encouraged to think about the fact that what you are looking at is out in the world because it is so often referring to what happens in the world, whether that be art making, commerce or popular entertainment. Sometimes it is a mixture of all three. A new pact seems to have been established here, whose terms are as follows: we are makers of abstraction in the American manner, but what that means has been changed irreversibly by what has happened in the world outside of us. We are no longer the monks of yesteryear. Nor are we the showmen. Nor do we feel reverential towards the materials that we use. There is no such thing as a material which is either appropriate or inappropriate. Everything is grist to our mill. We, the youthful scavengers of our frenzied world, are proclaiming a new doctrine: our art is constrained by what we choose to do. All ages are present to us. We make of it what we will, when we will, as we will.
Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (020-7811 3070; www.saatchigallery.co.uk) 29 May to 13 September,
Young at art: The Americans leading the abstract pack
Kristin Baker makes work which seems to embody the thrill and the dash of the passing moment. She uses industrial materials, and she often looks as if she is engaged in sign-painting. 'Exide Batteries Beer a Sphere' (2003) is a typical piece of work – a rich, onrushing mix of media spectacle executed with a fine, painterly flourish.
Matt Johnson: If you thought you knew what to expect from a piece of origami, you had not reckoned on the playfulness of Matt Johnson in a work entitled 'The Piano'. Johnson has taken a giant piece of tarpaulin, folded it into the form of a pianist sitting, arms raised, at a grand piano, fin menacingly raised, and coloured it an exhilarating, Yves Klein Blue.
Elizabeth Neel: Neel's work is a refined take on carnality and ferocity. The bloody, torn carcass of an animal falls away from a tree in a shattered, blood-soaked blur, having just been blasted by hunters to eternity. But the palette she uses is so luscious and seductive.
Ryan Johnson: Johnson's sculptures are made from a riotous cast of materials: casting tape, glass, plywood, cement, cardboard, spray paint. He makes comically grotesque walking or leaning figures, pathetic veterans of life or war with gouty feet and legs blown off. Political commentary? You bet.
Chris Martin is at the point at which outsider art meets formalism. His paintings consist of blobs, dots, lines joined-together like constellations, and are all painted with a kind of gloopy innocence and crudity. It looks a bit like a physics textbook which is being read upside down and then used as a child's colouring-in book.
Mark Grotjahn, drawing on modernist abstraction, paints recessive linear perspectives in colours which remind you of Cubist experimentation from 100 years ago – geometric forms, with very thin lines, and closely worked in coloured pencil.
Dan Walsh is a natural heir to the grid-making Minimalists, though with a much quirkier touch. In 'Red Diptych II', two large-scale paintings hang side by side. One consists of solid blocks, the other of concentric tiles. As you look from one to the other, one painting seems to recede as the other advances towards you.
Bart Esposito: Bart Esposito's geometric paintings seem to be a mixture of curvaceous graphic design and pop art. The colours are groovy browns and oranges. The forms twist and twist impossibly, smooth as gum.
Amy Sillman's work is as close as any of these young artists gets to the contemplative manner of some of the Abstract Expressionists. Rich, colourful, with shapes that seem to be dissolving into other shapes even as we look at them, they feel both weightless and fragmentary.
Aaron Young's work often seems to begin in Pollock-like scribblings – except that the marks on 'Greeting Card 10a' have been made by motorbikes roaring back and forth across the canvas. Pollock would surely have approved.