Abstract Expressionism was an art movement that arose in the mid-20th century in America after the end of World War Two. It was said to be the first explicitly American movement in existence, as it achieved worldwide prominence and replaced Paris as the focus of the Western art world. Abstract Expressionism made use of different styles and techniques that were often unconventional and unrealistic in order to emphasize the freedom that artists had when conveying their attitudes and emotions.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Is Abstract Expressionism?
- 2 The Artists Who Formed Abstract Expressionism
- 3 A Suitable Abstract Expressionism Definition
- 4 Characteristics and Influences of Abstract Expressionism
- 5 Features of Abstract Expressionism
- 6 The Lack of Representation Within Abstract Expressionism
- 7 Famous Abstract Expressionist Paintings and Their Artists
- 8 The Legacy of Abstract Expressionism
What Is Abstract Expressionism?
Developing in New York City, Abstract Expressionism was a post-World War Two art movement that came about during the 1940s. It was considered to be very important as it was the first entirely American art movement that ever existed, as it was created primarily in the United States. Due to its great influence, Abstract Expressionism soon removed Europe as the heart of modern art, as New York was suddenly considered to be the focus of the new art world.
While the Abstract Expressionism art movement spread quite rapidly across America, the hub of this style was still considered to be New York City and the Californian San Francisco Bay area. Also known as the “New York School”, Abstract Expressionism was centered around the importance associated with impulsive movement and expression, with these elements mainly being used in the art creation of that time.
Study for Painting (1936-1937) by Arshile Gorky; Arshile Gorky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
However, the movement was never considered to be a formal type of association, as the artists practicing Abstract Expressionism merely shared the same common interests that were affiliated with the style. After witnessing the horrors and brutality of World War Two, artists began to rebel against producing idyllic representations of life.
They felt that traditional art techniques were no longer accurate in capturing an authentic picture of life, as life as they knew it was in complete turmoil after the war ended.
Artists began to explore different ways of expressing emotions and feelings through using abstract and gestural markings, as well as striking color fields. Instead of depicting figures, artists retreated into the abstract realm, where a new interest in meditation and introspection was developed and reflected in the artworks that were created.
Elements such as spontaneity and improvisation were highly valued, as Abstract Expressionism artists used their newfound artistic freedom to break away from established traditions in both technique and subject matter. Spurred on by this liberation, artists were suddenly making enormously scaled works that existed as observations and representations of their individual mindsets.
A mural by U.S. Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture artist Carl Morris showing agriculture workers, painted in 1942 and installed in 1943; Carl Morris, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In essence, Abstract Expressionist paintings resisted stylistic categorizations, but the artworks could generally be grouped according to two basic preferences. The paintings either emphasized lively and spirited gestures or placed a contemplative and more cerebral focus on open fields of color.
In both instances, the images that were created were mainly abstracted, including the images that were based on true visual situations.
The Artists Who Formed Abstract Expressionism
By the late 1940s, multiple factors had shifted into place that allowed for the introduction of a new artistic movement into society. Artist Clyfford Still has been recognized for launching the movement in the years that followed the end of the Second World War, as his artworks demonstrated a noticeable change from representational to huge and abstract works. Jackson Pollock was also seen as a pioneer of the movement in 1947, as the invention of his signature drip technique when painting went on to revolutionize abstraction within art.
Willem de Kooning was another influential artist in the development of the movement. His Women series, painted between 1950 and 1953, famously eliminated the elements of composition, arrangement, light, and relationships to the point where the figures were simply seen as abstractions instead of people.
The most notable evidence of group solidarity occurred in 1951 when a group of artists boycotted an exhibition of contemporary art that was taking place at the Metropolitan Museum. Afterwards, they were coaxed into taking a photo for a magazine and were given the label “The Irascibles”. This photo, which gave artists a sense of identity and common objectives, went on to later popularize the term “Abstract Expressionism”, and thus the movement was solidly established.
This open letter appeared on the front page of the New York Times of May 22, 1950. The authors titled it as an “OPEN LETTER TO ROLAND L. REDMOND” as a means of rejecting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition; Jimmy Ernst, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Richard Pousette-Dart, Theodore Stamos, Ad Reinhardt, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Willem de Kooning, Hedda Sterne, James Brooks, Weldon Kees, Fritz Bultman, Herbert Ferber, David Smith, Ibram Lassaw, Mary Callery, Day Schnabel, Seymour Lipton, Peter Grippe, Theodore Roszak, David Hare, Louise Bourgeois, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A Suitable Abstract Expressionism Definition
The term “Abstract Expressionism” was first used in the German magazine Der Strum in 1919, regarding the German Expressionist movement. It was later used to describe American art in 1946 by prominent art critic Robert Coates, who used the term when talking about the paintings of Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and numerous other artists.
The movement’s name was taken from the fusion of the intense emotions and self-denial of the German Expressionists with the nonfigurative aesthetic of movements such as Futurism, Bauhaus, and Synthetic Cubism. Abstract Expressionism was considered to be a defiant, lawless, incredibly peculiar, and somewhat nihilistic movement in art, with this term being applied to any artists who were mostly working in New York at the time that demonstrated vastly different styles in their paintings.
Essentially, an Abstract Expressionism definition was used to classify artworks that were neither completely abstract nor expressionist in nature. Both types of artworks were still included under the broad label of Abstract Expressionism due to the styles displayed in the works. This was demonstrated by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who created artworks that varied greatly but were still seen to be Abstract Expressionism artists.
Three Paintings by Willem de Kooning hung together in a kind of triptych, 1968; Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Characteristics and Influences of Abstract Expressionism
A great contradiction of Abstract Expressionism was that the roots of the movement actually lay within figurative painting, which was popularized throughout the 1930s. These artists all felt the effects of the Great Depression, with their painting styles maturing after being influenced by both the Social Realism and the Regionalist movements.
Due to these experiences, most of the artists working during that time would later go on to be classified as Abstract Expressionists based on the characteristics that were displayed in their artworks.
After World War Two, the resulting political climate did not put up with the social protests that were expressed by artists within Social Realism. Already beginning to rise during the war, Abstract Expressionism eventually took over as the prevalent art movement in America, with artworks being showcased at different art galleries in New York in the early 1940s. This post-war era was a time where art was censored in America, but as the subject matter became more abstract, art was considered to be non-political and thus acceptable.
Influence of World War Two
During the 1930s and 1940s, many European Modernists began to flee the onset of the Nazis and escaped to New York to avoid the political upheaval and war that had broken out. Many of the artists who arrived in America brought with them the ideas and practices of European Modernism, with these artists proving to be invaluable assets to the subsequent artistic developments that would later occur. An influential artist who did this was Hans Hofmann, who founded the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts that trained many prominent artists.
American artists were taught about the many European artistic techniques, such as the formal inventions of Cubism and the automatism and psychological foundations that upheld Surrealism. The Abstract Expressionists became profoundly impacted by the idea of exploring the unconscious and existential philosophies. Thus, this influx of creative activity within New York meant that American artists slowly became much more knowledgeable about modern European art trends.
Aviation Limitation of forms under aerodynamic limitations IV (1935-1936) by Arshile Gorky; Pedro Ribeiro Simões from Lisboa, Portugal, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Personal encounters with displaced great European artists such as André Breton, Arshile Gorky, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí helped to drive away the legendary status acquired by these artists, as the American artists had initially felt inferior in relation to them. However, the war left American artists feeling confident in transcending traditional European influences in art, as they started to develop a rhetoric of painting that was relevant to their own nation.
Soldiers returning home from the war had witnessed horrible destruction, genocide, and atrocities that they could not possibly begin to talk about or understand. Artists who were drafted into the war needed an outlet to explore what they had gone through and made use of the expressive emotions and vast abstraction that defined the new art movement.
Abstract Expressionism existed as the appropriate movement at the time for artists to depict some of the inhumanity that was experienced.
Artists and other creatives were left to become apprehensive at the development of war, even in integrated and cultural areas like New York where free thought and rationalism had always thrived. This paranoia was then represented in the Abstract Expressionist style that emerged, as the artworks created fitted in with the post-war atmosphere of shock and distress that had gripped society.
Philip Guston sketching a mural for the WPA Federal Art Project in 1939, photographed by David Robbins; Archives of American Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Thus, American artists made use of the absence that was left by European artists who were caught up in the war and began to direct the new artistic movement that was to develop. Abstract Expressionism provided an outlet for artists to convey their feelings and ideas without the worry of a public probing of those thoughts.
Despite this, the public was still reluctant to accept these Abstract Expressionist paintings as true works of art. It was with the help of forward-thinkers and influential art collectors such as Peggy Guggenheim that provided the movement with a wider audience and a sense of authenticity.
This ultimately allowed the movement to evolve into what it is known as today, as the careful curation and respect for the artworks of the founding artists of Abstract Expressionism allowed them to still be in existence today.
Which Art Movement Was a Major Influence on Abstract Expressionism?
An important predecessor of the Abstract Expressionism art movement was Surrealism, which emphasized impulsive, automatic, and unconscious creation. Despite American artists displaying an unease with the blatant Freudian symbolism that was present in the Surrealist movement, they were still inspired by the great interest that was shown in the unconscious. Surrealism also centered around ideas of primitivism and mythology, with the impact that psychiatrist Carl Jung had on recurring motifs being present in Abstract Expressionism.
Before he started experimenting with his iconic drip paintings, Jackson Pollock displayed a great interest in primordial themes, which appeared often in his earlier works. A notable artwork that Pollock painted in 1943, She-Wolf, was said to be based on the myth of the city of Rome’s birth, which demonstrated the influence that mythology had on his art at the time. The prominence of mythology and psychological ideas in artworks was also displayed by artist Adolph Gottlieb, who frequently included archetypal symbolism in his paintings.
The She-Wolf (1943) by Jackson Pollock; Jackson Pollock, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
What Is Action Painting?
Abstract Expressionism can be divided into two groups, with the first group being known as Action Painting. This group placed emphasis on the physical action that was involved when painting. Well-known artists that practiced within this group of Abstract Expressionism were Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Philip Guston.
One of the most important Action Painting techniques was developed in 1947 and was known as drip painting. Jackson Pollock was arguably the most famous artist who made use of this technique, as he would pour and drip thinned paint onto an unprimed canvas that he lay flat on the ground.
This was seen as quite radical at the time, as Pollock abandoned traditional methods of painting in favor of splashing paint onto a canvas in a seemingly chaotic and haphazard way.
The Action painters were more focused on the physical act of painting as opposed to what they were trying to depict. This process often involved artists splashing and dripping paint onto their canvases, as well as the rough and gestural brushstrokes that appeared from a lack of meticulously applying the paint. Due to these techniques, paintings that were created using the Action Painting style became entirely non-objective and tumultuous.
Untitled (1960) by Inger Ekdahl; Artesa2, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Critic Harold Rosenberg came up with the term “Action Painting” in a 1952 article titled The American Action Painters. He stated that the common thread between all Action Painters was that they all understood that painting was only a physical manifestation of the artwork, as the process of making the piece existed as the actual work of art. The spontaneity associated with Action Painting was thought to represent the battle artists had with their subconscious minds in order to loosen up so that they could create purer expressions.
Action Painting remained widespread from the 1940s until the beginning of the 1960s. Additionally, many artists practicing this technique were also said to be participating in the second group that dominated the Abstract Expressionism movement, with both of these styles being present in the paintings that were created.
What Is Color Field Painting?
The second stylistic group that dominated during Abstract Expressionism was known as Color Field Painting. This technique was most notably practiced by Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland in the artworks that they created. Color Field Painting was mainly concerned with exploring the effects that applications of pure color had on a canvas.
The term “Color Field Painting” was first used by critic Clement Greenberg in 1955 about the paintings of Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. This was because these artists were painting straightforward compositions with large areas of single flat color, which were meant to generate a reflective and meditative response in viewers.
Wasko, Man in the Night (to Barnett Newman) (1988) by Ryszard Wasko; Ryszard Wasko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Color Field artists were supposedly looking for transcendence, with their extensive and emotive areas of color immersing viewers and inspiring a form of spiritual musing and powerful feelings. Within these paintings, pictorial means were simplified to focus on and create an elemental impact with the hues of colors used.
Artists stated that their goal was to create paintings that were seen as excellent as opposed to beautiful. Concentration was reduced when it came to accurately depicting subject matter, which freed artists of the outdated traditional styles of painting and allowed them to focus on the implication of color in their artworks.
Paintings that were produced within the Color Field Painting style aimed to remove the redundant and excessive rhetoric that was present in earlier artworks, with the emphasis being placed on the visual effects that color had on viewers.
Despite seeming simple, the colors used were typically complex and made up of multiple hues, which added to the depth and sincerity that was present in the artworks of this period.
Features of Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism was not always considered to be a coherent movement, as artists produced works that seemed to be beyond comparison at times. Due to this, you may be thinking: What is Abstract Expressionism then? Essentially, it is an art movement in which the artworks that were created all demonstrated specific features that were typical to the general movement. These techniques have been detailed below.
Central Park at Dusk (between 1936 and 1942) by Arshile Gorky; Arshile Gorky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Motivation for the Movement’s Development
The era in which Abstract Expressionism began was incredibly strained, as a consequence of World War Two. Artists felt incredibly limited in what they felt was appropriate to depict within their artworks, as nothing seemed authentic anymore. Therefore, Abstract Expressionism provided artists with a much-needed creative release for their suppressed feelings and thoughts.
Inspiration from Surrealism
When considering the current movement, it is easy to wonder: Which art movement was a major influence on Abstract Expressionism? The movement that both preceded and inspired Abstract Expression was the Surrealist movement. The spontaneity and interest surrounding subconscious creation motivated Abstract Expressionists to follow the flow of their feelings and to encourage the openness of their minds when creating artworks. This approach was utilized in place of first planning out a piece before artists could translate it onto a canvas.
Range of Color
Abstract Expressionists were able to experiment with vivid and diverse colors. This was because the artists did not attempt to render tangible and real images of objects or figures. Instead, artists were able to place their focus on the effect that color had within their artworks, as they became fascinated with how color was able to affect the mood and thought present.
Pedazos del Mundos #6 (‘Pieces of the Worlds #6’, 1961) by Robert S. Neuman; Ssavage11, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Size of the Artworks
Abstract Expressionist paintings were typically large, with artists choosing to make use of enormous canvases on which to paint their artworks. In some cases, artists would even utilize multiple canvases that were meant to be viewed as one completed work.
Perspective of the Artist
Since Abstract Expressionism was not distinguished by any one specific style, the perspectives and emotions that the artists brought into their artworks were very important. In all of the works produced within this movement, the feeling of the artists and that of the viewers were at the forefront of the paintings, as they were more central than the actual image that was depicted.
The Lack of Representation Within Abstract Expressionism
During the height of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s, many female painters in New York and San Francisco were also producing artworks that were in line with the more publicized artworks of their male counterparts. Despite this, their involvement within the movement was largely excluded from the literature and textbooks that documented the era.
This was because Abstract Expressionism was primarily characterized as a masculine field that was dominated by white males who were cutting through the softer aspects of fine art.
Several female artists were also experimenting with Abstract Expressionism and were creating notable artworks yet were consistently forgotten when considering the movement. These artists included Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and even Elaine de Kooning, wife of Willem de Kooning, to name a few.
Rock Bottom (1960-1961) by Joan Mitchell; smallcurio from Austin, TX, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Similarly, many African American artists who were also practicing within Abstract Expressionism were also left out. Norman Lewis exists as a significant example, as his artworks made use of many characteristics that were integral to Abstract Expressionism such as vibrant colors and graphic lines. Another notable artist who went unnoticed due to his race was Ed Clark, who was one of the earliest users of shaped canvases.
In 2016, however, the ladies of Abstract Expressionism finally received their long-awaited recognition when the Denver Art Museum put together the traveling Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibition. This exhibition was the first major organized recognition of these women, with over fifty important pieces being displayed.
Famous Abstract Expressionist Paintings and Their Artists
Several of the most influential artists within the Abstract Expressionist movement went on to become some of the most well-known artists throughout history. In this next section, we will explore some of the most notable and instrumental Abstract Expressionism paintings and artists that came out of the movement.
Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)
Latvian American artist Mark Rothko was a prominent member of the Abstract Expressionist movement, who was well known for his Color Field Paintings that portrayed misshapen and artistic rectangular objects of color. Rothko was mainly known for producing these types of paintings, which he did from 1949 until 1970. His most well-known Color Field Painting is said to be No. 6 (Violet, Green, Red), which he painted in 1951.
In keeping with his other works of that time, this painting exemplifies the importance of Rothko’s artworks and the prominence of his chosen style within Abstract Expressionism. Each of Rothko’s Color Field Paintings was titled by their color differences and all consisted of smooth, rectangular bands of color that stretched horizontally across the canvas.
Violet, Green, Red exists as a significant example of the chromatic abstraction that was used by artists within this era, with the emphasis being placed on the brushstrokes and paint texture as the elements communicate with the viewer.
Rothko’s striking blocks of color were used to build up a relationship with the conscious minds of viewers, as the bright tones allowed individuals to investigate their own moods according to the color palette.
When painting, Rothko attempted to extract the essence of the colors he used, as each color was selected for a particular reason. Additionally, he wrote a series of statements that accompanied his paintings and acted as a form of explanation.
Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)
One of the leading figures of the movement was American Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still, who was credited with laying the groundwork for the movement. This was because his shift from his previous artistic style to abstraction happened earlier than other prominent Abstract Expressionism artists like Jackson Pollock. However, in comparison to his contemporaries, Still was practically unknown for a few years, despite being seen as one of the more talented members of the movement.
One of Still’s most well-known works, which he painted in 1957, is 1957-D-No.1. This artwork forms part of the Color Field Painting stylistic group due to Still’s use of blocks of vibrant colors. 1957-D-No.1 demonstrates a noticeable step away from the Color Field Paintings of other artists, as Still incorporates bursts of vivid and warm colors with fine and wobbly lines, which conjure up ideas of rips and gashes in his painting.
This artwork evokes images of organic shapes and phenomena that remind viewers of Earthly elements such as cave stalagmites. Through depicting these types of objects, Still brings the elements that are typically found beneath the surface of everyday consciousness to life.
Additionally, the color palette that Still uses in this painting plays on the concepts of light and dark, as well as of life and death, which were ideas that frequently popped up in his other works.
Still’s refusal to put his artworks on display in what he deemed to be poor quality exhibitions caused his reputation to fluctuate despite his paintings gaining artistic achievement. Because of this, about 95% of his art collection was found in his possession when Stills passed away, with some artworks never being seen by the public before.
Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)
Another notable leader of the movement was Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning, who moved from the Netherlands to America in 1926. In addition to the artworks he created, de Kooning had a huge impact on the development of Abstract Expressionism, as he also engaged on social and intellectual levels with other artists working in the movement. One of de Kooning’s significant works created during this time period was Excavation, which he painted in 1950.
Excavation exists as one of de Kooning’s most renowned works as it is the most accurate depiction of his Abstract Expressionist style, as well as being his largest painting up to that date. Within the artwork, we can view multiple forms that are heavily outlined. Upon closer inspection, these forms are actually mere abstractions of familiar shapes that can be recognized after a while, such as birds, fish, eyes, jaws, and teeth.
This artwork demonstrates the expressive brushwork and organization of space that was characteristic in the majority of de Kooning’s paintings. As an artist, de Kooning received creative motivation from many things, with Excavation being inspired by a picture of women working in a rice field from a 1949 Neorealist film.
The tension created between abstraction and figuration is particularly evident in most of de Kooning’s artworks.
This was thought to be based on his method of painting, whereby he would deliberately scrape, remove, and add paint until he uncovered and rendered exactly what he wanted. Thus, within Excavation, the final artwork represents a true excavation of de Kooning’s mind within the movement, as he remains one of the most gestural Action Painters within Abstract Expressionism.
Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)
American artist Barnett Newman was an important member of the Abstract Expressionist movement, as he was one of the leading figures of the Color Field Painting group. Newman’s paintings were known for their ability to express a sense of locality and contingency. Out of his paintings, his best-known work is possibly Vir Heroicus Sublimis, painted between 1950 and 1951. Translated, this means “Man, Heroic and Sublime.”
This artwork exists as one of Newman’s largest paintings at the time, despite him going on to create even more extensive works. Within the painting, viewers are met with a completely red surface that is broken up twice by two vertical lines, which the artist termed as “zips”. Newman intended for audiences to view his painting from a close vantage point to allow the colors to fully enclose viewers.
Newman believed that his vast use of such a vibrant color spoke to the inherent chemistry that occurs when two people meet for the first time, as the same intense feelings are stirred when viewing his artwork.
Although the immense size and simplicity of the artwork adds to its importance as an Abstract Expressionist work, the connection that Newman was able to create between the painting and viewers through the use of color is notable.
Norman Lewis (1909 – 1979)
One of the most important African American painters was Norman Lewis, whose artworks were mostly ignored by galleries and museums throughout his career. Despite this, his contribution to Abstract Expressionism was undeniable.
A recent retrospective that was held at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, along with his inclusion in a massive Abstract Expressionist exhibition in the United Kingdom has begun to reverse his snub within art history.
One of his most significant paintings is Evening Rendezvous, which he painted in 1962. Lewis used his art as a place for him to escape and to work through the emotionally charged experiences of being a man of color in America. Evening Rendezvous is known for its distinctive use of red, white, and blue, with Lewis’ color palette indicative of the American flag. The white figures, although very abstracted, are said to conjure up images of hooded Klansmen that are gathered around a fire.
Lewis’s artwork was based on the pretense of patriotism that existed in America during that time, which was further demonstrated by the Civil Rights Act that began two years later. The background in Evening Rendezvous typifies Lewis’ use of atmospheric rinses of color to govern the mood he was attempting to create, as is exemplified by the somber mood that exists within this painting.
Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)
The visual language created by American artist Franz Kline in his artworks was unlike that of any of his peers, which made him an important influence within Abstract Expressionism. The techniques he used, as well as his spirited energy when painting, accurately embodied the principles of the movement, which added to his prominence as an Action Painter. One of Kline’s notable works from this period, painted in 1950, is Chief.
Kline began his career in figuration and often projected large images of his drawings onto walls when he started painting. After blowing up an image too large one day, only a fraction of the picture appeared in bold and dense black strokes. Kline was so taken aback by the abstraction that was present in this section of the image that he began to focus solely on portraying abstract figures and elements in his artworks.
The contrasting black and white sections of Chief have been the subject of speculation for years, as no solid idea seems to exist about what object Kline abstracted when creating this artwork. It was believed that the excessive use of the color black, which appeared often in Kline’s other works, was related to his childhood spent in a coal-mining community.
Using large brushes and household paint to create his works, Kline’s paintings became almost completely unrecognizable from their original subject.
However, the vibrancy and energy with which he created his compositions seemed to connect them to the titles that Kline gave them, making his paintings prominent examples of Action Paintings. No matter how lively yet urgent Kline’s paintings appeared to be, they were always carefully thought out and planned in their implementation.
Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)
One of the names most synonymous with the Abstract Expressionist movement was that of American artist Jackson Pollock, who made famous his drip painting technique during his career. Although not the first artist to employ this technique, Pollock was acknowledged as the artist who was able to most successfully incorporate this technique into his artworks.
Pollock went on to employ this technique in most of his Abstract Expressionist paintings, which are all still well-known today.
One of Pollock’s significant pieces is his Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) painting, created in 1950. Making use of the infamous drip technique, Pollock poured and splattered paints from a height onto an unprimed canvas that lay on the ground. This process of painting was thought to express his internal emotional turmoil, as Pollock was known for his volatile personality.
This technique, which incorporated gestural lines and textures in his compositions, represented a breakthrough for Pollock and his career. His drip paintings provided the incentive for art critic Harold Rosenberg to coin the term “Action Painting”, as his artworks represented the questionable blend of chance and control, which were equally significant concepts within Abstract Expressionism.
In addition to his erratic process of painting, Pollock stopped giving his paintings evocative titles early on in his career. Instead, he began to simply number his paintings, as he considered numbers to be more neutral. In doing so, Pollock believed that this would allow viewers to experience the purity of the painting without referring to a predetermined title.
Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011)
One of the most notable female artists in Abstract Expressionism was American artist Helen Frankenthaler, who was introduced to the New York art scene by her friend and art critic Clement Greenberg. Frankenthaler spent a summer studying under Hans Hoffmann, even viewing Jackson Pollock’s debut exhibition, before becoming an active member of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Frankenthaler’s career lasted over six decades, with her being one of the few artists to span several generations of Abstract Expressionists.
Her most notable artwork, painted in 1952, is Mountains and Sea. This is one of her most important works, as it was one of the first major paintings that she ever executed. In addition to its colossal size, Mountains and Sea reflects Frankenthaler’s deviation from traditional mediums and surface and the beginning of her signature technique.
Additionally, this artwork exists as an important Color Fields Painting due to the manipulation of colors employed by Frankenthaler.
Instead of treating paint as a layer that sat on top of the canvas, Frankenthaler thinned her oils and acrylics with turpentine to achieve the consistency of watercolors. After placing her unprimed canvas on the floor, Frankenthaler poured, dripped, sponged, mopped, and rolled the paint onto the Mountains and Sea canvas to lightly apply her toned-down washes. The effect that this created was one of strain, as the paint completely sunk into the canvas and took on a transparent effect.
This process allowed Frankenthaler both control and spontaneity within her artworks, with this combination existing as the key principle of Abstract Expressionism. Mountains and Sea was inspired by a trip that Frankenthaler took to Nova Scotia, as demonstrated by the apparent light and radiance that she achieved in this artwork.
The Legacy of Abstract Expressionism
Between 1943 and the early 1950s, the first generation of the Abstract Expressionist movement boomed. After this, it seemed as if the artistic genre had seemingly run its course. This was because the movement’s biggest achievements were built on the conflict between chaos and control that existed in society, which could only be expressed and played out in a variety of ways. Artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman had evolved into such a reductive style that no room for improvement existed, with the style slowly fading out.
This led the way for a new form of art to develop, propelled on by younger artists who were less pressured to produce one exquisite work after the next. More homosexual artists, such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, felt less inclined to follow in the footsteps of such an overtly masculine movement and began to produce art according to a new style. This demonstrated the early beginnings of the Minimalist and Pop Art movements, which had begun to take over by the 1960s.
The effect that Abstract Expressionism had on art was that it shifted the world’s focus from Europe to America, which helped to make New York into the cultural and artistic hub that it is today. Despite the topics and ideas that informed Abstract Expressionism losing their power to compel the newer generations of artists that were emerging, the legacy and contribution of the movement remain significant.
The Abstract Expressionism art movement was incredibly important within art history, as it introduced America to the remainder of art society that had previously considered Europe to be the only cultural focal point. Artists practicing within this genre experimented with a variety of techniques introduced by Surrealism, which strayed further away from traditional art creation. Thus, this movement allowed artists to depict the type of artistic freedom in society that was slowly being experienced after the horror of World War Two.