The unprecedented violence at the end of World War II prompted a number of Abstract Expressionists to abandon mythology as a means to explore contemporary evil. Myth, as used by these American artists, was essentially a synthesis of psychoanalytic theory, and cultural and physical anthropology, offering a structure with which contemporary events could be expressed without resorting to the illustrative documentation of the Regionalists or the Surrealists. The critical literature that treats the early New York School dismisses myth as a preparatory phase which was replaced by the purer forms of the painters’ signature abstraction by 1946 and 1947. Absent is an evaluation of the motives which led these artists actively to repudiate myth as a means to explore evil. An examination of this rejection of the last traces of narrative must also take into account the function and limitations of myth in early postwar American art.

An assessment of these limitations is undertaken by intrepreting the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, David Smith and other Abstract Expressionists in the context of Hannah Arendt’s coeval political philosophy and especially her early conception of radical evil. Additionally, the writings of Theodore Adorno, Pär Lagerkvist, Herman Melville, Barnett Newman, Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner offer a relevant context within which to analyse the dynamics that transformed the American use of the archaic from a celebration of the irrational into a condemnation of its moral ambiguity. Myth was not simply shed to make way for the breakthrough abstractions of the artists but was rejected because of its ideological dangers. In the postwar era, myth had become untenable.