Abstract Expressionism Movement and Chronology

Synopsis

Abstract Expressionism was never an ideal label for the movement which grew up 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. But it has become the most accepted term for a group of artists who did hold much in common. All were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes, and most were shaped by the legacy of Surrealism, a movement which they translated into a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma. In their success, the New York painters robbed Paris of its mantle as leader of modern art, and set the stage for America's post-war dominance of the international art world.

Key Points

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 protesting from the margins.
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.
The milieu of Abstract Expressionism united sculptors such as David Smith as well as photographers like Aaron Siskind, but above all the movement was one of painters.
Political instability in Europe in the 1930s brought several leading Surrealists to New York, and many of the Abstract Expressionists were profoundly influenced by the style and by its interest in 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 unconscious.
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Beginnings

Abstract Expressionism

It is one of the many paradoxes of Abstract Expressionism that the roots of the movement lie 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 movement. 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. And 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.

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 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 Kandinsky's works.

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New York in the 1930s and 1940s

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; he had met the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Braque, who had acquired titanic reputations in artists' circles in New York, and he was able to impart many of their ideas to his students. Hofmann arrived with a sophisticated understanding of Cubism, and also a 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, Max Ernst and André Masson, helped to rob some artists of the mythic status they had acquired. And, 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

By the late 1940s, many of the factors were in place to give birth to the new movement - however varied and disparate its artists' work. In, 1947 Jackson Pollock found his way to the drip technique. The following year, de Kooning had an influential show at the Charles Egan Gallery; Barnett Newman arrived at his breakthrough picture Onement I; and Mark Rothko began painting the "multi-form" paintings that would soon lead to the signature works of his mature period. And after 18 like-minded artists mounted a boycott of an exhibition of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum, and in January 1951 were cajoled into posing for a photo for Life magazine, they were baptized as "The Irascibles". Finally, the movement had a sense of common, group identity and purpose.

Themes, Concepts and Styles

Surrealism

The most significant influence on the themes and concepts of the Abstract Expressionists was Surrealism. The American painters were uneasy with the overt Freudian symbolism of the European movement, but they were 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 - primordial images which had become recurrent motifs. This gave many artists the impetus to move away from the biomorphic Surrealism of Miró and Picasso, and towards an increasingly reductive style. Rothko and Newman are typical of this progress: Rothko experimented with abstract symbols in the early 1940s before moving towards entirely abstract fields of color; Newman similarly sought an approach which might strip away all extraneous motifs and communicate everything through one powerfully resonant symbol - in his case, the so-called 'zip' paintings.

Many artists attempted to channel into art by means of what André Breton called 'pure psychic automatism', which in practice often meant the involvement of chance in the creation of art. Pollock considered his drip technique to be at least in part a means of harnessing his unconscious; and the approach left effects to chance 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. The ambivalence in Pollock's attitude was shared by many Abstract Expressionists', whose embrace of chaos was balanced by an impulse towards control. This paradox explains much of the energetic tumult one finds in the work of many of the so-called "action painters", including de Kooning, Kline and Motherwell. In part it led to the so-called "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; when chaos threatened, everything in the image could shatter into pieces.

Existentialism and Rosenberg

Another impetus for the Abstract Expressionists to retool Surrealism was a feeling that certain aspects of the style were no longer suited to the post-war world. The reigning philosophy of the period, Existentialism, would never be an important influence on the Abstract Expressionists, but it contributed to the rhetoric of anxiety and alienation which pervaded discussion. It was also a key influence on one of the movement's key critics, Harold Rosenberg, who delved into it for this influential formulation which appeared in an 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." It was this notion that birthed the idea of "action painting": it didn't quite accommodate the work of artists like Rothko and Newman, but it was an insightful realization of what painters like Pollock, Kline and de Kooning all had in common.

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Formalism and Greenberg

The other critic who proved crucial in promoting the movement - and the one whose influence has far out-lasted it - was Clement Greenberg. He was uncomfortable with any discussion of content and ideas in art, and argued instead that modern art had evolved along formal lines. Greenberg saw in Pollock the next important step in this process, and championed his work vigorously. Indeed, he championed all of the Abstract Expressionists as a triumphant American answer to the shortcomings of the European avant-garde. He also encouraged the idea of 'color field' painting. Some would later argue that color field painting represented a new manifestation of a long tradition of sublime landscape. But Greenberg viewed the work of Rothko, Still and Newman as part of a tendency in modern painting to apply color in extended areas, or 'fields'. He would later return to this notion in championing a second generation of painters, which included Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Morris Louis.

Further Developments

Like any group of artists whose work achieves widespread recognition, Abstract Expressionism was eventually imperilled by its success. An extensive network of dealers, museums and galleries reached out to support it; even the government covertly embraced it and promoted it vigorously overseas as a testament to free-expression in America, in contrast to the repressions of the Stalinist Eastern Bloc. Inevitably, by the mid 1950s, the style had attracted a multitude of young followers, and what began as an impulse to expression, threatened to become stale and academic.

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 trademark solutions. Younger artists following the development of this generation were less and 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, 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.

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 which 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.



Original content written by Justin Wolf
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Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
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Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
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Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
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Abstract Art
Abstract Art
Abstraction from nature, objects, or figures has been common throughout the history of art, but it was not until the early twentieth century that abstraction was pursued for its own sake. From about 1913 it became a central characteristic of modernist art, and it continues to an important part of contemporary artists' repertoire.

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Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
A member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and later a teacher at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky is best known for his pioneering breakthrough into expressive abstraction in 1913. His work prefigures that of the American Abstract Expressionists.
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Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s, he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
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Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
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Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
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Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
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Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
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Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism began as a movement in German art in the early 1960s with the emergence of Georg Baselitz. It gained momentum in the 1970s, with the addition of painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz and Eugen Schönebeck. Drawing inspiration from German Expressionism, many of its practitioners focused on the country's troubled modern history. In the 1980s, it inspired many successful painters across the world, including Julian Schnabel.
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David Smith
David Smith
David Smith was an American artist who combined Surrealism and formal abstraction in his sculptures. His early works, small and with a craft-like aesthetic, give way later on to giant constructions of welded and burnished steel.
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Aaron Siskind
Aaron Siskind
Aaron Siskind was a twentieth-century American photographer whose catalog of work bears the mark of Abstract Expressionism. Siskind's photographs of found objects were often closely focused on simple shapes in the object, reflecting the artist's preoccupation with basic form, line and texture. Siskind was a significant pioneer is turning photography into an abstract medium.
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Social Realism
Social Realism
Social Realism refers to a style of figurative art with social concerns - generally left-wing. Inspired in part by nineteenth-century Realism, it emerged in various forms in the twentieth century. Political radicalism prompted its emergence in 1930s America, while distaste for abstract art encouraged many in Europe to maintain the style into the 1950s.

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American Regionalism
American Regionalism
Regionalism emerged in 1930s America as an alternative to the abstract and avant-garde veins of modern art. Executed in a realist style, it often depicted scenes of everyday rural life, and frequently featured allegories about land, labor, and American history.

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Works Progress Administration
Works Progress Administration
The government-funded Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired hundreds of artists who collectively created more than 100,000 paintings and murals and over 18,000 sculptures. The Project was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression (1929-1943).
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Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum has become the home for some of the greatest works of avant-garde painting, sculpture, film and multi-media art in the world. While MoMA remains true to its roots as a place where new styles of art can circulate, its permanent collection is widely considered the most impressive and diverse assortment of Modern art to ever exist, ranging from late-nineteenth-century van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins to works produced in the present day.
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Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
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Georges Braque
Georges Braque
Georges Braque was a modern French painter who, along with Pablo Picasso, developed analytic Cubism and Cubist collage in the early twentieth century.
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Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
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André Breton
André Breton
André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
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Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
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André Masson
André Masson
André Masson was a French painter and one of the pioneers of Surrealism. His practice of "automatic drawing" consisted of methodically supressing his conscious mind while creating art, thus allowing Masson to work from his subconscious. He was also known to work after long periods of forced hunger and sleep deprivation, resulting in quasi-hallucinatory images.

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Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
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Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
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Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
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Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
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Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
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Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who in the early twentieth century founded the psychoanalytic school of psychology. His theories on the human unconscious, arhcetypal forms and free association were very influential on many forms of modern art, including Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

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Carl Jung
Carl Jung
Carl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology. Jung studied the human psyche through an exploration of dreams, religion, mythology and art. Jung's extensive work and interest in the human unconscious was a major influence on some of the Abstract Expressionists.

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Franz Kline
Franz Kline
Franz Kline was an American abstract painter and one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. His signature black-and-white abstractions were inspired by Japanese calligraphy, and inspired a later generation of artists who created Minimalism.
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Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
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Existentialism
Existentialism
Existentialism is a system of philosophical thought founded in the nineteenth century and championed by such figures as Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard, and later by twentieth-century literary figures like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism deals largely with the complexities of individual human emotions, thoughts and responsibilities. Existentialist philosophy was widely used by various artist in the arena of modern art.
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Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
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Formalism
Formalism
Formalism is an approach to interpreting art that emphasizes qualities of form - color, line, shape, texture and so forth. Formalists generally argue that these are at the heart of art's value. The belief that form can be detached from content, or subject matter, goes back to antiquity, but it has been particularly important in shaping accounts of modern and abstract art. In recent decades formalism has met with resistance, and a range of other approaches, including social and psychoanalytic, have gained popularity.
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Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still was a leading first-generation Abstract Expressionist. His mature works are large-scale paintings with gaping chasms and stains of jagged color, often in dark earth tones.
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Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract painter in mid-twentieth-century New York. Along with Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, Frankenthaler is considered a pioneer in the practice of color-field painting.
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Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell was a leading second-generation Abstract Expressionist who painted large works of gestural marks and overlapping, roiled color areas. She was famous for her acerbic personality, and her later work often earns comparison with the late painterly style of Impressionist Claude Monet.
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Morris Louis
Morris Louis
Morris Louis was an American painter and an original member of the so-called Washington Color School. Along with Noland, Frankenthaler and others, Louis pioneered the color-field school of painting, using a technique of soaking heavy oil paints into unprimed canvases. Louis's paintings in part inspired his friend Clement Greenberg to dub the second-generation Abstract Expressionism artists Post-painterly abstraction.
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Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
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Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
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Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly is an American color-field and Hard edge painter. Kelly got his start in the late 1950s with showings at the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Whitney Museum. His work often consists of shaped canvases, simple geometric shapes, and large panels of uniform color.
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Allan Kaprow
Allan Kaprow
Allan Kaprow was an American painter, collagist, assemblagist and performance artist. Kaprow was best known for trailblazing the artistic concept "happenings," which were experiential artistic events rather than single works of art.
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Gutai
Gutai
The Gutai was a Japanese artistic movement that was founded by Jiro Yoshihara in 1954. The group was preoccupied with beauty that is born from things that are damaged or decayed. Members believed the destructive process revealed the inner life of materials and objects. Works often manifested in the form of installations and inspired the later Fluxus movement.

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Viennese Actionists
Viennese Actionists
Viennese Actionism was a violent art movement in the twentieth century that led to the development of action art in the 1960s. Gunter Brus, Otto Muhl, and Hermann Nitsch were among its main participants. The Actionists' work is marked by the use of nudity, destruction, and violence. The artists often used the body as their artistic surface.

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Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel is an American painter, interior decorator and filmmaker. In addition to being a major figure in the Neo-Expressionist movement, he is most well-known as the director of such films as Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
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Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American painter who rose to fame in the 1980s, and was the first African-American artist to gain international acclaim. His emotionally-charged paintings gave rise to graffiti art and the Neo-Expressionist movement, and are still considered among the most avant-garde artworks of the late twentieth century.
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Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown is a British painter, best known for her works that incorporate visual elements of figuration and abstraction. Her paintings have a vast range of influences, from Goya to Guston.

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

Title: Number 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950)

Artist: Jackson Pollock

Artwork Description & Analysis: One of thirty-two paintings in Pollock's 1950 solo exhibition at Betty Parson's New York gallery, Number 1 (Lavender Mist) was the only painting that sold. Despite critical praise and media attention, the artist did not garner sales of his famous drip paintings until later in his career. Pollock titled several paintings Number 1, and coded them with alternate titles. Thus, Number 1 (1949) and One, Number Thirty One, are closely related but upon close viewing differ slightly. Number 1 (Lavender Mist) exemplifies gestural abstraction, in which paint was poured or applied with extreme physicality to reflect the artist's inner mind. The color is expressive, while space is created through alternative layers and drips of opaque paint, creating a textured canvas surface that is nearly dizzying.


Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Washington DC

Red, Brown and Black
Red, Brown and Black

Title: Red, Brown and Black (1958)

Artist: Mark Rothko

Artwork Description & Analysis: Mark Rothko's paintings are titled by color variations, and all consist of soft, rectangular bands of color stretching horizontally across his canvases. Red, Brown, Black exemplifies a kind of chromatic abstraction known as color field painting. Color field painters were concerned with brushstroke and paint texture, but they came to view color as the most powerful communication tool. Rothko's interests in mysticism, religion, and myth hearken back to the Surrealists, and his blocks of color are meant 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.


Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art

Door to the River
Door to the River

Title: Door to the River (1960)

Artist: Willem de Kooning

Artwork Description & Analysis: Willem de Kooning was another gestural action painter, 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. Some critics feel de Kooning is influenced most clearly by Cubism because his work frequently operates on grid-like compositions in which color creates dimension and texture. Door to the River is part of a series made in the 1950s to 1960s, in which de Kooning's brushstrokes appear to be completely spontaneous, to reflect the presence of both the artist and the viewer, when one sees the canvas with its lively physicality.


Oil on canvas - Whitney Museum, New York

Vir heroicus sublimis
Vir heroicus sublimis

Title: 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. He intended his audiences to view them from a close vantage point, allowing the colors to fully surround them - hence he was considered to be a color field painter. Newman believed that the radically abbreviated motif of the zip could communicate qualities of humanity which found echoes in ancient art. For later generations, however, Newman's work was important for different reasons relating to its scale and simplicity. Mel Bochner, an artist associated with Conceptualism, remembered encountering it at MoMA in the late 1960s and realizing that its scale 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."


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

Chief
Chief

Title: Chief (1950)

Artist: Franz Kline

Artwork Description & Analysis: Franz 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. 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. And many have since noted that the forms in his early abstractions seem to have evolved from drawings of Kline's wife Elizabeth.


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

Zone
Zone

Title: 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", which 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

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.