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
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
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."
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 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
- Abstract Expressionism Event TimelineInteractive timeline of major events in the development of the movement
- Art Theory and CriticsOverview of Abstract Expressionist ideas and the theoricians behind those ideas
- Venues of Abstract ExpressionismThe galleries, museums, clubs, and schools where the movement took shape
- Abstract Expressionism (World of Art, 2nd edition) (2015)By Debra Bricker Balken
- Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere (2010)By David Anfam
- Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern ArtBy Mary Gabriel
- 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)Our PickA 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
- American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s: An Illustrated Survey (2003)88 artists are represented with statements in their own words and a biography. / By Marika Herskovic
- Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics (1999)History of the movement by investigation of other, largely-ignored artists - people of color, women, gays, and lesbians. / By Ann Eden Gibson
- The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (1992)Our PickBy Dore Ashton
- Modern art was CIA 'weapon'Our PickHow 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 1950sBy Carolyn Kinder Carr / National Portrait Gallery
- The New AbstractionBy Barbara A MacAdam / Art News / November 2007
- The Critical Moment: Abstract Expressionism's Dueling DuoOur PickThe Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg Rivalry / By James Panero / Humanities / July/August 2008
- Abstract Expressionism Timeline of EventsWarhol Stars AbEx site
- PollockOur PickPopular biography of Jackson Pollock and his circle. / Written and directed by Ed Harris.
- Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?Our PickLow-budget movie about a missing Pollock painting.
- Pollock's canvas as backdrop in Vogue photoshoot