This article documents the high prevalence of mood disorders in a group
of 15 of the mid-twentieth-century Abstract Expressionist artists of the
New York School. These artists, using the technique of psychic automatism
(based on free association) in order to reveal unconscious material,
created a psychologically and spiritually significant art that addressed
the mythic themes of creation, birth, life, and death. Over 50% of the 15
artists in this group had some form of psychopathology, predominantly mood
disorders and preoccupation with death, often compounded by alcohol abuse.
At least 40% sought treatment and 20% were hospitalized for psychiatric
problems. Two committed suicide; two died in single-vehicle accidents while
driving; and two others had fathers who killed themselves. Many of these
artists died early deaths, and close to 50% of the group (seven of 15) were
dead before the age of 60. The material presented in this article suggests
the following formulation and hypothesis. Depression inevitably leads to a
turning inward and to the painful reexamination of the purpose of living
and the possibility of dying. Thus, by bringing the artist into direct and
lonely confrontation with the ultimate existential question, whether to
live or to die, depression may have put these artists in touch with the
inexplicable mystery that lies at the heart of the "tragic and timeless"
art that the Abstract Expressionists aspired to produce.