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Abstract Expressionism

Started: 1943

Ended: Late 1965

Abstract Expressionism Timeline

Important Art and Artists of Abstract Expressionism

The below artworks are the most important in Abstract Expressionism - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Abstract Expressionism. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

1948 C (1948)
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1948 C (1948)

Artist: Clyfford Still

Artwork description & Analysis: In the early 1940s Clyfford Still, like many other artists of the time, was primarily a representational painter, evoking moody dark scenes in somber colors. By the mid 1940s his work began to change with the appearances of dashes and jags of colored lines atop his paintings. This marked his own shift into abstract expressionism as a non-objective painter interested in juxtaposing different colors and surfaces into a variety of formations.

Although known for being one of the prominent Color Field painters, Still's hot bursts and crackly lines of vivid hues that conjure tears and gashes were distinct from say Rothko's more simplified washes of color, or Newman's thin lines. This can be seen in 1948 C, a large work that recalls natural shapes and phenomena reminiscent of cave stalagmites, caverns, and other mysterious elements that lie just beneath the surface of our everyday conscious recognition. The relationships within Still's compositional ingredients, of foreground and background, bring to mind life's dance between light and dark - something Still loved expressing, a self-described "life and death merging in fearful union."

Oil on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Number 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950)
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Number 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950)

Artist: Jackson Pollock

Artwork description & Analysis: Number 1 (Lavender Mist) is one of thirty-two paintings that debuted in Pollock's 1950 solo exhibition at Betty Parson's New York gallery and was the only painting that sold. In it, a chaotic composition of black, white, russet, orange, silver and stone blue industrial paint is built up in random web-like layers that blend visually together to give off the illusion of a lavender glow.

The piece is exemplary of Pollock's famous "drip" works in which paint was poured, splattered and applied by the artist in an extremely physical fashion from above to a canvas which lay on the ground. This process of expressing an internal emotional turbulence through gesture, line, texture, and composition represented a breakthrough for Pollock in his career and helped put the New York School of painters to which he belonged on the map. These paintings became the impetus for critic Rosenberg's coining of the term "action painting." This type of unlikely combination of chance and control became tantamount to Abstract Expressionism's evolution.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Washington DC

Excavation (1950)
Artwork Images

Excavation (1950)

Artist: Willem de Kooning

Artwork description & Analysis: Excavation is one of Willem de Kooning's most renowned works, and a true depiction of his Abstract Expressionist style. In it, we see a multitude of outlined forms that are abstractions of familiar shapes right on the periphery of recognition: fishes, birds, jaws, eyes and teeth. De Kooning has said of his work, "I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space." After this frenzied pile up of imagery, de Kooning would then, with signature chaos and deliberation, remove, scrape and add paint until he unearthed what he wanted. The resulting piece presented a true excavation of the artist's mind and movements in the moment.

De Kooning remains one of the most seminal gestural "action painters" who worked often with broad brushstrokes and in light, pastel palettes. He sought authenticity of experience, not only in the making of his paintings but also in the representation of the experience on canvas.

Oil and enamel on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago

Vir heroicus sublimis (1950-51)
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Vir heroicus sublimis (1950-51)

Artist: Barnett Newman

Artwork description & Analysis: Translated as "Man, heroic and sublime," Vir heroicus sublimis was, at 95"x213", Newman's largest painting at the time it was completed, although he would go on to create even more expansive works. In it we see a vast field of dark red punctuated twice with vertical lines that Newman coined "zips." He believed that this abbreviated signature motif could communicate qualities of humanity which found echoes in ancient art. He intended audiences to view his paintings from a close vantage point, allowing the colors to fully surround them - hence he was considered to be a Color Field painter. He also felt the intimacy the painting provoked was much akin to two people meeting and the kind of inherent chemistry that evoked.

Although Newman's work was important to the movement for its scale and simplicity, it was this relationship between painting and viewer that was most notable. Mel Bochner, an artist associated with Conceptualism, remembered encountering it at MoMA in the late 1960s and realizing that its size and color created a new kind of contact between art and the viewer. "A woman standing there [looking at it] was covered with red," he recalled. "I realized it was the light shining on the painting reflecting back, filling the space between the viewer and the artwork that created the space, the place. And that that reflection of the self of the painting, the painting as the subject reflected on the viewer, was a wholly new category of experience."

Similar philosophies, of a stripped down experience between painting and onlooker, would be seen later in the work of the Minimalists.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

No. 6 (Violet, Green, Red) (1951)
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No. 6 (Violet, Green, Red) (1951)

Artist: Mark Rothko

Artwork description & Analysis: Mark Rothko's work exemplifies Abstract Expressionism's Color Field paintings. Each piece is titled by color variations, and all consist of soft, rectangular bands of color stretching horizontally across the canvas. Violet, Green and Red is a prime example of this kind of chromatic abstraction.

Color Field painters were concerned with brushstroke and paint texture, but they came to view color as the most powerful communication tool. Rothko's blocks of color were meant to strike up a relationship with the viewer's deep consciousness, to provide a contemplative, meditative space in which to visually investigate one's own moods and affiliations with the chosen palette. He sought to distill an essence, or true nature, out of codified hues. Along with his friend, the painter Adolph Gottlieb, Rothko wrote a series of statements in 1943 to explain his work. In one, they wrote: "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought."

Oil on canvas - Private collection

Chief (1950)
Artwork Images

Chief (1950)

Artist: Franz Kline

Artwork description & Analysis: Franz Kline started his career in figuration and was known to project large images of his drawings on the wall to use in for his paintings. One day he blew an image up too large resulting in only a fraction of it appearing in bold, thick black strokes. He was so taken by the abstraction that he was inspired to start painting them. The pieces, although entirely unrecognizable as to their original subject, still seemed to reverberate with an energy that connected them believably to their titles. Kline's work was also noted for its energetic palette of bold black and white strokes; he made a note to always paint the white rather than relying on the canvas to take on that color's role.

Kline's work typifies that of the "action painters" celebrated by Harold Rosenberg. But no matter how energetic and urgent his pictures seemed to be, they were always carefully considered in their execution. So much so that critics have speculated wildly on the sources behind images such as this one. Chief was the name of a locomotive Kline remembered from his childhood, and it's possible to read the image as a sensory reminiscence of its power, sound, and steaming engine. Some also believed that the artist's obsession with black was connected to his childhood spent in a coal-mining community dominated by heavy industry.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Mountains and Sea (1952)
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Mountains and Sea (1952)

Artist: Helen Frankenthaler

Artwork description & Analysis: Frankenthaler was introduced to the New York art scene through her friend, the critic Clement Greenberg and she spent a summer in 1950 studying with Hans Hoffman. She was at the Betty Parsons Gallery for Jackson Pollock's debut show and said of it: "It was all there. I wanted to live in this land. I had to live there, and master the language." Which she did, becoming an active painter for the next six decades.

Mountains and Sea (1952) is one of Frankenthaler's most important works and first major paintings executed when she was only twenty-three. Not only is it monumental in size at 7 x 10 feet; it also reflects the artist's departure from traditional mediums and surface and the onset of her signature technique. Rather than treating paint as a layer meant to sit on top of the canvas, she thinned oils (and later switched to acrylics) with turpentine to the consistency of watercolor. She would then place large swaths of unprimed canvas onto the floor and through a highly physical dance of pouring, dripping, sponging, rolling and mopping, would apply the liquid washes. The effect was one of staining - the paint would completely sink into the canvas creating an integrated, transparent effect. Much like the other Abstract Expressionists, this process allowed for both control and spontaneity.

The piece was inspired by Frankenthaler's trip to Nova Scotia and is reflective of her interest in achieving luminosity on the canvas. Landscape would continue to inspire her work, which has become synonymous with some of the most innovative Color Field investigations to arise from the movement.

Oil and Charcoal on unsized, unprimed canvas

Zone (1953-54)
Artwork Images

Zone (1953-54)

Artist: Philip Guston

Artwork description & Analysis: Zone, a painting that reflects the focused concentration of Philip Guston's mature work, suggests a warm calm, with its mist of red hatch-marks filling the painting's center. ("Look at any inspired painting," he once said, "it's like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation.") Here, Guston hones his mark-making, and builds layers of paint out of quick, small strokes that are quite distinct from the wilder gestures of some of his colleagues. This approach led him to be characterized at one time as an "American Impressionist", and also suggests just how varied was the work embraced by the official title of the movement, Abstract Expressionism.

Oil on canvas - The Edward R. Broida Trust, Los Angeles

Thaw (1957)
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Thaw (1957)

Artist: Lee Krasner

Artwork description & Analysis: Thaw is Lee Krasner's ode to a joyous spring bursting forth with exuberant brushstrokes and vibrant color after a long winter. The repetition of oval shapes partially filled with color suggests tropical foliage, ripe and fruitful, unlike any found on earth. It is an abstract nature inspired by Henri Matisse and nurtured in the studio of her teacher, the artist Hans Hofmann. Hofmann would also have inspired her freedom to attack a bare canvas with a paint-heavy brush. Her strokes have an unerring energy and athleticism that scorns revision. Few have been reinforced so as to structure the composition, but in many the tracks of the brush hairs are visibly unaltered. These are the gestures of a painter highly inspired by nature and marked by an unfettered spirit.

Oil on canvas - Available on line Wikiarts. Christie's sale 2007

Bullfight (1959)
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Bullfight (1959)

Artist: Elaine de Kooning

Artwork description & Analysis: Bullfight is a boisterous expression of passion and color in varied brushstrokes, which cover the canvas in a sort of chaotic symmetry. The artist has said of her style: "I'm more interested in character than style. Character comes out of the work. Style is applied or imposed on the work. Style can be a prison." Her work is known for this impulse toward freedom along with movement, attention to balance and design and deliberate choices about color, form and composition.

De Kooning was extremely immersed in the movement. When she began making her first paintings, she was an editorial associate at ARTnews and one of the first to write reviews and articles on her fellow Abstract Expressionist members such as Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. She was also married to the key Abstract Expressionism figure, Willem de Kooning.

Oil on canvas - Denver Art Museum

Essex (1960)
Artwork Images

Essex (1960)

Artist: John Chamberlain

Artwork description & Analysis: Essex is a wall relief reminiscent of an inflated abstract painting and typifies much of Chamberlain's freestanding sculptures. The artist spontaneously crafted these pieces with car parts found in junkyards, assembling them through chance intuition. Additional colors were then applied to reinforce the palette of common auto paints and emphasize the broken surfaces that bulged out from the wall and captured light on their reflective surfaces. The sharply cut pieces of steel Chamberlain used were fitted to bring out linear rhythms much like the actions made by painters' brushes. Similar to sculptor David Smith, Chamberlain's spontaneous methods and work resembled three-dimensional versions of Abstract Expressionistic paintings, which justified his inclusion in the group.

Painted and chromium plated steel - Museum of Modern Art - New York City

Evening Rendezvous (1962)
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Evening Rendezvous (1962)

Artist: Norman Lewis

Artwork description & Analysis: Although Lewis often said that art was not a tool for solving society's problems, his work was often a place for him to work out the emotionally charged experiences and challenges of being a man of color and all the permutations that presented within his community at large. This piece, distinctive for its red, white and blue all-American palette, although highly abstract, conjures the imagery of hooded Klansmen gathered around a bonfire at twilight - colluding under a perversely false guise of patriotism. The background typifies Lewis' use of atmospheric washes of hue to inform mood, in this case a somber one.

Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum

Cubi XII (1963)
Artwork Images

Cubi XII (1963)

Artist: David Smith

Artwork description & Analysis: Cubi XII by David Smith is one of the series of sculptures in stainless steel that epitomize his mature career as an artist. It is an abstract composition of geometric figures - squares and rectangles, in a vertical arrangement and intended to stand out of doors like a sentinel or a totem. Although greater than "life size" it nevertheless has the anatomical proportions of a human with legs, torso and head rendered through geometry. And while it is static there is a quality of anticipated movement to be found in its broken silhouette. The figure is asymmetrical and implies that a shift in space could be anticipated.

Smith was a complex artist who drew and painted with equal talent and understood the power of light falling upon these rectangular areas. So the surfaces have been abraded and drawn upon with tools and made to sparkle in sunlight, becoming a further source of sculptural animation: abstraction and expression united in an icon.

Stainless steel - Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC



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Related Art and Artists

The Accommodations of Desire (1929)
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The Accommodations of Desire (1929)

Movement: Surrealism

Artist: Salvador Dalí

Artwork description & Analysis: Painted in the summer of 1929 just after Dalí went to Paris for his first Surrealist exhibition, The Accommodations of Desire is a prime example of Dalí's ability to render his vivid and bizarre dreams with seemingly journalistic accuracy. He developed the paranoid-critical method, which involved systematic irrational thought and self-induced paranoia as a way to access his unconscious. He referred to the resulting works as "hand-painted dream photographs" because of their realism coupled with their eerie dream quality. The narrative of this work stems from Dalí's anxieties over his affair with Gala Eluard, wife of artist Paul Eluard. The lumpish white "pebbles" depict his insecurities about his future with Gala, circling around the concepts of terror and decay. While The Accommodations of Desire is an exposé of Dalí's deepest fears, it combines his typical hyper-realistic painting style with more experimental collage techniques. The lion heads are glued onto the canvas, and are believed to have been cut from a children's book.

Oil and cut-and-pasted printed paper on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Bed (1955)
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Bed (1955)

Artist: Robert Rauschenberg

Artwork description & Analysis: One of Rauschenberg's first "combines," Bed transcends the line between painting and sculpture through its Dadaist assemblage of traditional materials and the detritus of everyday life. Rauschenberg coined the term combine to describe a series of works from the 1950s and 1960s that literally combine the media of painting and sculpture within a single, three-dimensional art object. Apocryphal or not, the legend behind the combine states that one day Rauschenberg ran out of canvas and turned instead to his bed linens, first scribbling on the pillow, sheets, and quilt with pencil, then rapidly dripping and spilling paint on them. He then stretched the bed linens over a rectangular wooden support, in the place of a canvas, and attached the pillow and quilt in a way that made it appear as if the bed was made with only one corner un-tucked. He applied the paint in a loose, dripped, gestural fashion that calls to mind the authorial marks of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. However, the brushstroke in the combine was no longer a mark indicative of the artist's psyche, but an appropriated symbol designating a shift towards the external world within the avant-garde. The found objects present more of an accurate portrait of Rauschenberg than the dripped paint, as they were items that he owned and used in his daily life, rather than an aesthetic sign borrowed from a previous generation.

Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wooden supports - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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