What is Abstract Expressionism?
Abstract Expressionism is a modern art movement that developed in New York City after World War II and was initially popular during the 1940s and 1950s. Abstract Expressionism is recognized for its large-scale paintings consisting of large blocks of color and non-traditional treatment of materials and processes. Abstract Expressionist artists avoided grouping themselves by a cohesive artistic style but shared an interest in expressing intense emotion and abstract subject matter through their art.
Notable Abstract Expressionism Artwork
History of Abstract Expressionism
Around the time of World War II, many artists fled from Europe to the United States to escape the violence and destruction caused by this war and left behind by World War I. Many of these artists settled in and around New York City and began to cultivate their artistic practices in this new space. In light of the destruction that many European cities faced along with the influx of European artists to the United States, New York City soon replaced Paris as the center of the Western art world.
The term Abstract Expressionism was first used to describe the American art movement in 1946 by art critic Robert Coates. However, abstract Expressionism was used as early as 1919 by art writers to describe German Expressionism and later the works of Wassily Kandinsky . This earlier term referred to the form of Expressionist art that was moving towards abstraction; an abstract form of Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism, on the other hand, became the name of the American art movement, specifically, and by the 1940s, American painting was elevated to the level of European modernism.
American Abstract Expressionism was influenced by existing modernist movements such as Surrealism, Fauvism and Synthetic Cubism which emerged throughout the early twentieth century in France and Germany. Surrealism profoundly influenced Abstract Expressionist paintings, as Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist paintings share a common interest in automatic or subconscious creation.
Abstract Expressionism did not have a cohesive style. Instead it had techniques and concepts that unified artists under the umbrella of Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism broke from the accepted conventions of modernist painting by favoring an all-over composition and near-total abstraction of subject matter. Action painting and color field painting were two techniques that Abstract Expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky used to manifest intense emotional energy.
Much of the artwork produced during the interwar period, especially the early 1940s, was heavily political. Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Abstractionism and Surrealism were among the movements cited by United States Senator Joseph McCarthy for their transgressive and “destructive” qualities . Abstract Expression seemed to fall under the radar, likely due to it lacking any identifiable subject matter. Because of its total abstraction and radical new directions, Abstract Expressionist painting could convey social and political critiques without being immediately recognizable, which boosted its popularity rather than earning it widespread censorship.
Action painting was one of the artistic techniques that influential Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, James Brooks and related artists used to convey powerful emotions through the process of creating their art. Artists had been using the technique of action painting since the 1940s and art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term Action Painting in 1952 . Action painting shifted the focus away from the significance of the chosen subject matter and instead valued the process used to document the artists’ emotions.
Action painting involves the spontaneous application of paint to a canvas that results in thick paint application, unpredictable brushstrokes and painterly gestures. Action painting’s characteristic abstraction is the result of the artist throwing, splashing, dripping and smearing paint onto the canvas. Abstract Expressionist painters often applied paint using a large paint brush but sometimes abandoned traditional painting tools crucial to Western European painting altogether and threw paint onto the canvas directly from the container.
The almost automatic gestures of action painting are closely aligned with the automatism and subconscious movement favored by the Surrealists. With action painting, the paint was seen to be a direct link to the artist’s subconscious mind, their mental state and their emotions. Through random movement and physical application of paint the artist was able to translate the subconscious mind into a dynamic and abstract work of art.
At the time, German Expressionists were also focused on expressing emotions over illusions or rationalizations for destabilizing events in modern life. However, German Expressionist paintings still had recognizable subject matter despite their turn toward abstraction. Action painting, on the other hand, existed in stark contrast to the carefully planned paintings of previous art movements and was anti-figurative. The goal of Abstract Expressionism was to capture the overall feeling of a scene or subject, rather than all of its intricate visual details.
Jackson Pollock, though criticized at the time, became one of the most famous action painters in modern art history. There are many factors influencing Pollock’s monumental status but his radical approach to painting is what made him so influential. Pollock often used house paint instead of traditional oil paint and laid his enormous canvases on the ground rather than mounting them on the wall or on an easel. This made the technique of action painting all the more impactful.
Color Field Painting
Color field painting is most recognizable in the work of American painters Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, where large, flat areas of unbroken color were central to their paintings rather than the gestural abstraction achieved through action painting. While color field painting and action painting are distinct styles, they both achieve the overall goal of Abstract Expressionism, which was to be deeply expressive of intense emotion.
Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky brought his history as a Surrealist painter into his Abstract Expressionist paintings. Gorky is widely considered to be a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, especially color field painting. His paintings are regarded for their use of raw canvas and a technique called staining. Staining involves diluting oil paint so that it drips and runs down the canvas, creating a loose and organic composition. Helen Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea from 1952 is one of the most famous and perhaps earliest paintings to use the staining technique.
Abstract and biomorphic shapes were popular in color field painting and appear in the works of Abstract Expressionist artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Hans Hofmann. Hans Hoffman immigrated to the United States in the 1930s and trained artists to work with abstraction and color.
Hoffman was influenced by Cubist painters Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso, but it was French painter Henri Matisse’s work that helped Hofmann develop color field painting in theory and practice. Matisse’s work spanned across several modernist movements, including Fauvism, post-Impressionism and Expressionism, where many of his paintings contain abstracted subject matter and large blocks of uninterrupted color. As a result, the Color Field movement became a subgenre of Abstract Expressionist painting.
Influence of Abstract Expressionism on Contemporary Art
In the 1960s, other forms of abstract painting emerged in reaction to the Abstract Expressionist movement. Geometric abstraction and hard-edge painting contrasted the organic and biomorphic shapes that define Abstract Expressionist style.
Minimalism was especially critical of art such as Abstract Expressionism. Though Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism may appear to be similar, Minimalism rejected every last bit of painterly technique and subjective meaning that was central to Abstract Expressionism. Minimalism was not meant for self-expression and many Minimalist artists sought to convey the essence of an object or form. Pop Art was also a reaction to Abstract Expressionism and encouraged the ongoing upward trajectory of New York City as a cultural center and art hub incited by Abstract Expressionism.
Though at first criticized, American Abstract Expressionism influenced many artists and art movements that followed. American painter Joan Mitchell, for example, was one of many Abstract Expressionists who continued to paint in this style for years to come. Though painting was originally the most popular medium to work with, Abstract Expressionism was also a popular style for many collage artists and sculptors, who pushed the boundaries of representation alongside their painter counterparts.
Notable Abstract Expressionism Artists
- Lee Krasner, 1908-1984, American
- Arshile Gorky, Armenian-American, 1904-1948
- Joan Mitchell, 1925-1992, American
- James Brooks, 1906-1992, American
- Jackson Pollock, 1912-1956, American
- Willem de Kooning, 1904-1997, Dutch-American
- Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, American
- Ruth Asawa, 1926-2013, American
- Franz Kline, 1910-1962, American
- Hans Hoffman, 1880-1996, German-American
- Adolph Gottlieb, 1903-1974, American
- Clyfford Still, 1904-1980, American
- Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010, French-American
- Alexander Calder, 1898-1976, American
- Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011, American
- Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, American
- Mercedes Matter, 1913-2001, American
- Jean-Paul Riopelle, 1923-2002, Canadian
References Hess, Barbara. Abstract Expressionism. Taschen, 2016.  Hauptman, William. “The Suppression of Art in the McCarthy Decade.” The Online Edition of Artforum International Magazine, 1 Oct. 1973, https://www.artforum.com/print/197308/the-suppression-of-art-in-the-mccarthy-decade-37985.  Rosenberg, Harold. The American Action Painters. poetrymagazines.org.uk. Retrieved August 20, 2006.
Related Art Terms
- Action Painting
- American Modernism
- Abstract art
- Arte Povera
- Color Field Painting
- Pop Art
- New York School