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Abstract Expressionism Collage

Abstract Expressionism

Started: 1943
Ended: Late 1965
Abstract Expressionism Timeline
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

Summary of Abstract Expressionism

"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 & Accomplishments

  • 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.

Overview of Abstract Expressionism

Jackson Pollock's <i>Convergence</i> (1952) was pictured on the 2010 US Postage stamp

In 1943 the noted art collector and gallerist Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Jackson Pollock to paint a mural for her apartment vestibule. Though Mural (1943) was the first commission and large scale work for the then unknown artist, he procrastinated for months, supposedly completing it in all night session just before Guggenheim's deadline. The painting launched his career as the leading artist of the then emerging Abstract Expressionism, and the story of its inception became part of his legend and myth.

Key Artists

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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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Do Not Miss

  • 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.
  • Action Painting was a term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg to refer to the gestural and somewhat existential mode of Abstract Expressionism, often characterized by drips, flung paint, and rapid, spontaneous strokes by the artist. In this view the painting is a record of the artist's activities over time.
  • Responding to the atrocities and traumas of World War II, the artists associated with Art Informel embraced abstraction and gestural techniques.
  • The artistic history of the US stretches from indigenous art and Hudson River School into Contemporary art. Enjoy our guide through the many American movements.

Important Art and Artists of Abstract Expressionism

1957-D-No. 1 (1957)

Artist: Clyfford Still

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 1957-D-No. 1, 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."

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950)

Artist: Jackson Pollock

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 on the map. These paintings became the impetus for critic Rosenberg's coining of the term Action Painting. And this unlikely combination of chance and control became tantamount to Abstract Expressionism's evolution.

Excavation (1950)

Artist: Willem de Kooning

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.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Abstract Expressionism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 22 Nov 2011. Updated and modified regularly
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