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Abstract Expressionism

Started: 1943

Ended: Late 1965

Abstract Expressionism Timeline

Quotes

"To us, art is an adventure into an unknown world of the imagination, which is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense."
Adolf Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko
"Freeing ourselves of the obsolete props 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."
Barnett Newman
"Where the Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can look, can travel through, only with the eye."
Clement Greenberg
"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."
Harold Rosenberg

KEY ARTISTS

Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
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Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning
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Mark RothkoMark Rothko
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Clyfford StillClyfford Still
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Franz KlineFranz Kline
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Hans HofmannHans Hofmann
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"It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academic painting. However, there is no such thing as good painting about nothing."

Mark Rothko Signature

Synopsis

"Abstract Expressionism" was never an ideal label for the movement, which developed in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. It was somehow meant to encompass not only the work of painters who filled their canvases with fields of color and abstract forms, but also those who attacked their canvases with a vigorous gestural expressionism. Still Abstract Expressionism has become the most accepted term for a group of artists who held much in common. All were committed to art as expressions of the self, born out of profound emotion and universal themes, and most were shaped by the legacy of Surrealism, a movement that they translated into a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma. In their success, these New York painters robbed Paris of its mantle as leader of modern art, and set the stage for America's dominance of the international art world.

Key Ideas

Political instability in Europe in the 1930s brought several leading Surrealists to New York, and many of the Abstract Expressionists were profoundly influenced by Surrealism's focus on mining the unconscious. It encouraged their interest in myth and archetypal symbols and it shaped their understanding of painting itself as a struggle between self-expression and the chaos of the subconscious.
Most of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism matured in the 1930s. They were influenced by the era's leftist politics, and came to value an art grounded in personal experience. Few would maintain their earlier radical political views, but many continued to adopt the posture of outspoken avant-gardists.
Having matured as artists at a time when America suffered economically and felt culturally isolated and provincial, the Abstract Expressionists were later welcomed as the first authentically American avant-garde. Their art was championed for being emphatically American in spirit - monumental in scale, romantic in mood, and expressive of a rugged individual freedom.
Although the movement has been largely depicted throughout historical documentation as one belonging to the paint-splattered, heroic male artist, there were several important female Abstract Expressionists that arose out of New York and San Francisco during the 1940s and '50s who now receive credit as elemental members of the canon.

Most Important Art

Abstract Expressionism Famous Art

Number 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950)

Artist: Jackson Pollock
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.
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Abstract Expressionism Artworks in Focus:

Beginnings

It is one of the many paradoxes of Abstract Expressionism that the roots of the movement lay in the figurative painting of the 1930s. Almost all the artists who would later become abstract painters in New York in the 1940s and 1950s were stamped by the experience of the Great Depression, and they came to maturity whilst painting in styles influenced by Social Realism and the Regionalist movements. By the late 1940s most had left those styles behind, but they learned much from their early work. It encouraged them in their commitment to an art based on personal experience. Time spent painting murals would later encourage them to create abstract paintings on a similarly monumental scale. The experience of working for the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration also brought many disparate figures together, and this would make it easier for them to band together again in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the new style was being promoted.

New York in the 1930s and 1940s

Museum of Modern Art's first director Alfred Barr designed this “Cubism and Abstract Art” exhibit poster (1936)
Museum of Modern Art's first director Alfred Barr designed this “Cubism and Abstract Art” exhibit poster (1936)

Artists living in New York in the 1930s were the beneficiaries of an increasingly sophisticated network of museums and galleries, which staged major exhibitions of modern art. The Museum of Modern Art mounted shows such as "Cubism and Abstract Art," "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism," and a major retrospective of Pablo Picasso. And 1939 saw the opening of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, later to be called the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which boasted an important collection of Wassily Kandinsky's works.

Many European modernists began to come to New York in the 1930s and 1940s to escape political upheaval and war. Some, such as the painter and teacher Hans Hofmann, would prove directly influential. Hofmann had spent the early years of the century in Paris where he had met the likes of Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque, who had acquired titanic reputations in artists' circles in New York. Hoffman was able to impart many of their ideas to his students through his sophisticated understanding of Cubism, and love of Matisse's Fauvism, which was underappreciated by many in New York.

All this activity meant that New York's artists were extraordinarily knowledgeable about trends in modern European art. It left many with feelings of inferiority, yet these were slowly overcome in the 1940s. Personal encounters with many displaced Europeans, such as André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Arshile Gorky, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, and André Masson, helped to dispel some of the mythic status these artists had acquired. As Europe suffered under totalitarian regimes in the 1930s, and later became mired in war, many Americans felt emboldened to transcend European influence, to develop a rhetoric of painting that was appropriate to their own nation, and, not least, to take the helm of advanced culture at a time when some of its oldest citadels were under threat. It was no accident that critic Clement Greenberg, in one of his first important responses to the new movement, described it as "'American-Type' Painting".

The Formation of the Movement

“The Irascibles” legendary photograph by Nina Leen (1950)
“The Irascibles” legendary photograph by Nina Leen (1950)

By the late 1940s, many factors were in place to give birth to the new movement - however varied and disparate its artists' work. Clyfford Still has been credited for kick-starting the movement in the years immediately following World War II with his own shift from representational to large, abstract works. In 1947 Jackson Pollock developed his signature drip technique. The following year, Willem de Kooning had an influential show at the Charles Egan Gallery where he introduced his Women paintings, famously eliminating composition, light, arrangement, and relationships from his female portraits so that figuration turned into the abstract. Barnett Newman arrived at his artistic breakthrough with the picture Onement I; and Mark Rothko began painting the "multi-form" paintings that would lead to the notable works of his mature period. In 1951,18 like-minded artists mounted a boycott of an exhibition of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum called "American Painting Today - 1950." Afterwards, they were cajoled into posing for a photo for Life magazine and were baptized as "The Irascibles." The piece popularized the term Abstract Expressionism, giving the movement a sense of group identity and common purpose.

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Abstract Expressionism Overview Continues

Concepts and Styles

Surrealism

Surrealism was an original influence on the themes and concepts of the Abstract Expressionists. Although the American painters were uneasy with the overt Freudian symbolism of the European movement, they were still inspired by its interests in the unconscious, as well as its strain of primitivism and preoccupation with mythology. Many were particularly interested in the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who believed that elements of a collective unconscious had been handed down through the ages by means of archetypal symbols, or primordial images, which had become recurrent motifs.

Before he was making his drip paintings, Pollock's interest in primeval themes appeared often. In his She-Wolf piece, which he described "came into existence because I had to paint it," a somber wolf is overlaid with lines and swirls. Although the artist refused to discuss its content, it was made as the world struggled with global crisis and has been compared to the myth of the city of Rome's birth in which the wolf suckled the twin founders Romulus and Remus. Another artist, Adolph Gottlieb, frequently included archetypal symbolism in his paintings. A cross, an egg, or an arrow might appear to express basic psychological ideas that were universally familiar.

Color Field

The emerging Abstract Expressionist artists had an impetus to move away from the biomorphic Surrealism of Miró and Picasso, and toward an increasingly reductive style that emphasized a more personal expression. Still, Rothko, and Newman are typical of this progression as they ventured into the world of color as expressive, emotional object in its own right. Still created canvases marked by bold colors that were torn up and ruptured by other juxtaposing textures and forms, angular, uneven and vivid. Rothko experimented with abstract symbols in the early 1940s before moving towards entirely abstract fields of color. Newman similarly sought an approach that might strip away all extraneous motifs and communicate everything through one powerfully resonant symbol. Newman's 'zip' paintings presented vertical bands of color painted down the center of a canvas, which served to unify rather than divide the piece.

Color Field Painting Movement Page

Although some would later argue that Color Field painting represented a new manifestation of a long tradition of sublime landscape, noted theorist of the time Clement Greenberg viewed the work of Still, Rothko, and Newman as an evolution of formalism thus defining a fresh stream within Abstract Expressionism. Formalism was not interested in the contents of the work as much as analyzing the lines, color, and forms presented - a dissection of the way paintings were made and their purely visual aspects.

Action Painting

Greenberg also championed Pollock's "drip" paintings in a formalist regard (as an exciting and vast new way to look at color splotches and spontaneous paint forms) although the work was most known for catapulting Abstract Expressionism's other main style - that of action painting. Harold Rosenberg, another important critic of the time, explained in a 1952 article for ART News entitled "The American Action Painters": "At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act - rather than a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or 'express' an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event."

Rosenberg presented an insightful realization of what painters like Pollock, Kline and de Kooning all had in common. For them, the painting was seen only as a physical manifestation of the actual work of art, which was the process of making the painting. The spontaneous actions of the painter, the random drips and brush strokes, all represented a struggle or dance with the subconscious to unloose its contents through pure expression.

But this creative process was not without considerations toward control either. Pollock considered his drip technique to be, at least in part, a means of harnessing his unconscious; the effects thus laid bare for all to see on the surface of the canvas. But like many others, Pollock also insisted on an element of control in his method - as he once said, "No chaos, damn it!" - and he believed that the "drips" were powerfully expressive, rather than being merely random accumulations of paint. Indeed, they were self-expressive. Many Abstract Expressionists whose embrace of chaos was balanced by an impulse toward control shared the ambivalence in Pollock's attitude. This paradox explains much of the energetic tumult one finds in the work of many so-called "action painters" including de Kooning, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. In part it led to the "all-over" effect, which one sees in Pollock's mature work, and in de Kooning's abstract paintings of the late 1940s, in which forms seem to be dispersed evenly across the canvas - composure in the midst of chaos.

Many Abstract Expressionists of the time straddled both Color Field and Action Painting with their work. In Helen Frankenthaler's early career, her canvases were a mix of pleasant blotches of color interspersed with loosely strategic forms. But she would go on to become one of the most famous Color Field painters of our time with her signature giant canvases stained with large washes of color, laid down in very physical fashion by large mops and squeegees.

Second Generation

The Abstract Expressionist movement of 1950s New York would make a huge impact on the art world and bloom outward to influence a second generation of Abstract Expressionist artists with slightly different concerns. These artists were more diverse in terms of gender, socio-cultural environment, and geography although a key hub did emerge in San Francisco. Greenberg coined these followers of a decidedly de Kooning style, those who painted with a "tenth street touch," or loaded brush. Unlike their forebears, the second-generation artists' emphasis shifted from the interior, subjective world to the objective exterior - analyzing and questioning what gave things meaning. Greenberg staged a show in 1964 called "Post-Painterly Abstraction" to showcase these new styles, which had arisen from the influence of Abstract Expressionism and showcased this new generation of talent. Lyrical Abstraction and Hard Edge would also emerge during this time. Second Generation Abstract Expressionists included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Joan Mitchell, and many others.

Minorities of Abstraction

During the 1940s and 50s, many female painters in New York and San Francisco were producing work in tandem with their more highly publicized male counterparts, yet they remained largely absent from the literature, textbooks and documentation of the times. Abstract Expressionism was often characterized as a robustly masculine, white man's field, cutting a bold and aggressive swath through the softer aspects of fine art. But women like Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher were also experimenting with material and process to free themselves from previous artistic conventions. Although very individualized in essence, the work of these female artists often presented expressions in response to recurring themes such as place, seasons, or references from literature, dance and music. Similarly, African American artists Norman Lewis, who used bright expressive palettes and calligraphic lines to express the eternal conflict between joy and plight within his racial community; and Ed Clark, who was one of the early users of shared canvas, were important contributors to the movement who flew low under the public's radar of the time.

Further Developments

In August 8, 1949 Life Magazine asks: “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” with a photo of the artist leaning against one of his drip paintings
In August 8, 1949 Life Magazine asks: “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” with a photo of the artist leaning against one of his drip paintings

By the mid 1950s the style had also run its course in other ways. The movement's greatest achievements were often built on a conflict between chaos and control. which could only be played out in so many ways. Some artists, such as Newman and Rothko, had evolved a style so reductive that there was little room for development - and to change course would have shrunk the grandeur of their bold trademarks.

Younger artists following the development of this generation were less persuaded by artists who were said to put forth one sublime expression after another, often in series, and they grew tired of their postures of heroism. Homosexual artists, such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Ellsworth Kelly, also felt little affinity with the macho styles and rhetoric of the New York School. Some, like Johns, would learn much from the Abstract Expressionists, and carry their interest in the autographic gesture in fresh directions, introducing qualities of irony, ambiguity and reticence, which the older generation could never have countenanced. Others, like Warhol, were too enthralled by the pop culture of the streets to have much in common with the lofty ambitions of hard-drinking womanizers such as Pollock and de Kooning.

Photo of Jackson Pollock working in his studio. Pollock showed artists and theorists new directions of creativity, including the act of “being” in the painting while creating it. He, in essence, performed his work to fruition.
Photo of Jackson Pollock working in his studio. Pollock showed artists and theorists new directions of creativity, including the act of “being” in the painting while creating it. He, in essence, performed his work to fruition.

By the late 1950s, Abstract Expressionism had entirely lost its place at the center of critical debate and a new generation was on the cusp of success. Yet the legacy of the movement was to be considerable. Allan Kaprow sensed this as early as 1958 when he wrote an article for ART News entitled "What is the legacy of Jackson Pollock?" His answer pointed beyond painting, and Pollock's influence was certainly felt in areas where performance had a role: he was to be important to the Japanese Gutai movement as well as the Viennese Actionists. But the influence of the movement as a whole would continue to be felt by painters maturing in subsequent decades. It was important for the likes of Dorothea Rockburne, Pat Steir, Susan Rothenberg and Jack Whitten in the 1970s. Its rhetoric - if not its direct example - would be important for many Neo-Expressionists in the 1980s such as Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And in the 1990s it again provided an example to painters such as Cecily Brown. The themes and concepts that informed Abstract Expressionism may have lost the power to compel young artists, but the movement's achievements continue to supply them with standards against which to be measured.

In 2016, the ladies of the movement finally received their due when the Denver Art Museum compiled the traveling Women of Abstraction exhibition. It was the first major organized recognition of over fifty important pieces seen together as a cohesive whole.


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Useful Resources on Abstract Expressionism

Videos

Special Features

Books

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What is abstract expressionism? ► 4:50 What is abstract expressionism?

Introductory animation on the movement
222k views

Abstract Expressionism Overview ► 4:51 Abstract Expressionism Overview

By MOCA, Los Angeles
17k views

Women of Abstract Expressionism ► 6:41 Women of Abstract Expressionism

Overview of the female members of the movement and exhibition in the Denver Art Museum
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Painters Painting (1973) ► 0:00 Painters Painting (1973)

Full length documentary on Abstract Expressionism that includes quotes and ideas from the principal artists
views

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Abstract Expressionism Event Timeline

Interactive timeline of major events in the development of the movement

Art Theory and Critics

Overview of Abstract Expressionist ideas and the theoricians behind those ideas

Venues of Abstract Expressionism

The galleries, museums, clubs, and schools where the movement took shape

Article: An Inside Look at the AbEx-ers

Exhibition: Abstract Expressionism New York
Museum of Modern Art 10/3/10 - 4/25/11

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Abstract Expressionism (World of Art, 2nd edition) (2015)

By Debra Bricker Balken

Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere (2010)

By David Anfam

Abstract Expressionism: The International Context (2007)

Focus on movements influence on international art scene
By Joan Marter, David Anfam

Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique (2005) Recomended resource

A selection of readings including influential statements by Rothko, Motherwell, Pollock, and Newman as well as commentary by diverse critics. No reproductions of works
By Ellen G. Landau

More Interesting Books about Abstract Expressionism
Modern art was CIA 'weapon' Recomended resource

How the US spy agency used art by
Pollock and de Kooning in a cultural Cold War
By Frances Stonor Saunders
The Independent
22 October 1995

Rebel Painters of the 1950s

By Carolyn Kinder Carr
National Portrait Gallery

The New Abstraction

By Barbara A MacAdam
Art News
November 2007

The Critical Moment: Abstract Expressionism's Dueling Duo Recomended resource

The Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg Rivalry
By James Panero
Humanities
July/August 2008

web resources

Abstract Expressionism Timeline of Events

Warhol Stars AbEx site

abstract expressionism in popular culture

Pollock Recomended resource

Popular biography of Jackson Pollock and his circle.
Written and directed by Ed Harris.

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? Recomended resource

Low-budget movie about a missing Pollock painting.

More Interesting Resources about Abstract Expressionism
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