Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism Collage
Started: 1943
Ended: Late 1965
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.
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Mark Rothko Signature
To us, art is an adventure into an unknown world of the imagination, which is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.
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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.
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Barnett Newman Signature
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.
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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.
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Harold Rosenberg
Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell.
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Willem de Kooning Signature
The large format, at one blow, destroyed the century-long tendency of the French to domesticize modern painting, to make it intimate. We replaced the nude girl and the French door with a modern Stonehenge, with a sense of the sublime and the tragic that had not existed since Goya and Turner
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Robert Motherwell Signature
Because of their lofty ideals, the first generation who formed The New York School are often referred to as the 'heroic' generation of American artists. Inventing new images and new techniques, they searched for universal symbols not limited to any specific time or place.
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Art Historian Barbara Rose

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

Key Artists

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.

Important Art and Artists of Abstract Expressionism

Clyfford Still: 1957-D-No. 1 (1957)

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."

Jackson Pollock: Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950)

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.

Willem de Kooning: Excavation (1950)

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.

Useful Resources on Abstract Expressionism

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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