Home Magazine Abstract Expressionism: What you need to know today!

Emerging in the 1940's in New York City, Abstract Expressionism is largely considered to be the golden age of American art. A small vanguard of artists at the time, albeit loosely affiliated, went on to create a body of work that introduced a radical new direction in the art world and shift its focus over its head.

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What is Abstract Expressionism? 

Abstract Expressionism designates the abstract art in vogue in the United States during the forties and fifties of the twentieth century. In the United States, Abstract Expressionism first appeared in 1929 in a paper by Alfred H. Barr - American art historian and the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City - that commented on some of Kandinsky's paintings. The Russian painter already shared with Expressionism the taste for chromatic contrasts and for a certain vehemence of gesture.

Abstract Expressionism was the first American artistic phenomenon to influence the rest of the world, contributing, during the 20th century, to move the capital of art from Paris to New York. 

Around the gallery-museum “Art of This Century”, opened by the patron Peggy Guggenheim, the most significant avant-garde artists arose and developed, including the young American Jackson Pollock and the Russian Mark Rothko. 


Peggy Guggenheim and Jackson Pollock in front of Pollock’s Mural, 1943. © George Kargar, Courtesy of The University of Iowa.


All of the leading exponents of Abstract Expressionism coalesced into what has been called “The New York School”, an informal grouping of artists, critics, and intellectuals who all lived and worked in New York between 1940 and 1950. However, the banner or aesthetic category of Abstract Expressionism groups together artists who have always refused to constitute a school or, worse, to accept a common label. "To affix a name to us would be a catastrophe”, said Willem De Kooning at a public debate in 1950 around the question of the most appropriate name for the group. 


“The New York School”. Back row, left to right: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne. Center row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin. Front, seated row: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James C. Brooks, Mark Rothko. Photo by Nina Leen/Time Life Pictures, Courtesy Getty Images. 


Never formally bound, the artists known as the original Abstract Expressionists, didn’t, however, have mutual outlooks at the time. The un-cohesive and varied works produced by the Abstract Expressionists all shared an interest in the use of abstraction as a method to convey strong emotional and expressive content. 

Moreover, the paintings labeled as Abstract Expressionism involve different aspects.

"We can no longer paint men playing the cello or bouquets of flowers: the subject is the prime element of painting; the history of my generation begins with the problem of what to paint”. These were the words of one of the major figures in abstract expressionism Barnett Newman in 1948. The opposition between “the what” and “the how” turned theAbstract Expressionist’s circle upside down. It is true that, the will to mean and signification lies at the heart of any artistic creation. For Pollock, for example, only the result matters and “it matters little how the color is applied once something has been said”. As subjective as it is, technique is only a means to get there.


Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51, Oil on canvas, 7' 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4" (242.2 x 541.7 cm), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller, © 2021 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


For the first time in its history, America was setting trends, and New York had unquestionably become a “beacon” city, a lively center of research and debate. There was an urgent need to overcome the provincialism of American Realism Art and to forget the economic crisis of the early thirties. 

Many prominent Abstract Expressionist artists would gather to drink and discuss in the same clubs, such as “The Cedar Tavern”, a bar and restaurant at the eastern edge of Greenwich Village. Attending the same cultural circles, they were tickled by different stimuli and exciting novelties: classical or indigenous myths and rituals, Jungian psychology, Cubist and Surrealist movements.

Who are the Abstract Expressionists?

Many protagonists of Abstract Expressionism are Europeans who fled World War II and Nazi persecution. European artists and intellectuals, such as Piet Mondrian who, after arriving in the United States in 1940, began participating in American Abstract Artists’ exhibitions; or Josef Albers who taught at Black Mountain College. Man Ray settled in California, while Fernand Léger was a teacher at Yale. Also part of the Surrealist group (Salvador Dali, André Masson and Max Ernst - who married the patron Peggy Guggenheim) had re-gathered in America around the figure of André Breton.


Willem De Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52, Oil and metallic paint on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58" (192.7 x 147.3 cm), © 2021 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Although their works varied greatly in style, some of the key proponents of the movement were Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Mark Rothko (1903–1970), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Franz Kline (1910–1962), Lee Krasner (1908–1984), Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), and Barnett Newman (1905–1970). They were the notable ones who advanced formal inventions in search for significant content. The movement overall proved to be extremely successful, critically and commercially. It went on to replace Paris as the central contemporary art scene of the time and its influences largely live on today. 


Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 108, 1965-67, Oil on canvas, 6' 10" x 11' 6 1/4" (208.2 x 351.1 cm), Charles Mergentime Fund, © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art. 


Black Reflections (1959), Franz Kline.


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As the artists of the movement went on to break away from conventional techniques and subject matters, they ended up making monumental works that stood to reflect their individual psyches. And in doing so, they accessed a universal inner source of creativity, power, and ultimately: expressionism. They put great value on spontaneity and improvisation and most importantly, the process, earning the movement another name: action painting. They rejected stylistic categorization, but overall, two basic inclinations formed: one that emphasized energetic and dynamic gestures and one that preferred a reflective, cerebral focus with more open fields of colour. In both cases, however, the imagery was largely abstract, even when depicting images based on visual realities. 

The context of the movement was just as important as the work it produced. Many of the young artists of the time made their start in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Two movements were central to that time: Regionalism and Social Realism, but neither appealed to this group of artists' need to find a way to create work rich with meaning and social responsibility yet absent of explicit politics. Also, a key factor of the time that contributed to the creation of this movement was the fact that the Great Depression led to the development of government relief programs where unemployed Americans qualified for help, which allowed many artists to establish their career paths. 

The crisis of the second world war and its aftermath are key to understanding the concerns of the Abstract Expressionists. These young artists were deeply troubled by mankind's darkness and fully aware of its irrationality and vulnerability. They desperately wanted to express their concerns in a new art of meaning. Contact with European artists only increased as a result of the second world war, which caused many of the great European artists of the time like Dalí, Ernst, Breton, Masson, Mondrian and Léger to migrate to the U.S. They assimilated their modernist views and influenced the current class of American artists. Alfred H. Barr Jr., the director of the Museum of Modern Art at the time, pioneered the collection and exhibiting of these artists, putting on groundbreaking shows like Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936-37), as well as major retrospectives of Matisse, Leger, Picasso and others. 


Selected Images of Jackson Pollock painting (1950), Hans Namuth.


This was the exposure that the abstract expressionists needed to launch their movement. The Surrealists, in particular, opened up new possibilities with their emphasis on tapping into the unconscious. One device they famously employed for breaking free of the conscious mind was psychic automatism, where automatic gesture and improvisation gained free rein. In 1947, Pollock developed a radical new technique where he poured and dripped thinned paint onto raw canvases laid on the ground, rejecting the traditional methods of painting that involved pigment application by brush and primer, as well as stretched canvas positioned on an easel. In the works' subject matter, despite seeming like they lacked one, scale and technique were vital which were found to be shocking to many viewers. De Kooning was also developing his own version of highly charged, gestural style where he blurred the line between abstract work and powerful iconic figurative images. Other colleagues like Krasner and Kline were equally committed to create art of dynamic gesture where every inch of paint is fully charged with emotion. For the Abstract Expressionists, the value of a work was related to its immediacy of expression. A painting was meant to reveal the artist's authentic self. The gesture, or the signature, is evidence of the actual process of the work's production. It is in reference to this aspect of the movement that critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term "action painting" in 1952. Rosenberg famously wrote: "At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”  

Color field was equally important as gesture and went on to highlight the potential in colour use. Rothko, Newman and Still, for example, created art based on large-format, colour-dominated fields. The impulse was mostly reflective and cerebral, with pictorial means simplified to create an elemental impact. Rothko and Newman spoke of their goal to achieve the "sublime" rather than the "beautiful". Newman described his reductivism as one way to "free ourselves of the obsolete drops of an outmoded and antiquated legend... freeing ourselves from the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, and myth that have been the devices of Western European painting.” Rothko, with his soft-edged rectangles of luminescent colours provoked viewers in such a religious-like experience, sometimes crying was involved. The scale was integral to all those artists, especially Pollock and Rothko, as it directly contributed to meaning. Their vast works were meant to be seen in close environments so that the viewer was virtually enveloped by confronting such scale. Rothko famously said, "I paint big to be intimate."


Untitled (1960), Mark Rothko.


Cover image: Jackson Pollock 1951. Courtesy Woodshed Art Auctions.

Written by Leonidas Kalai and Petra Chiodi

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