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Abstract Expressionism - History and Concepts

Abstract Expressionism Collage

Started: 1943

Ended: Late 1965

History and Concepts


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)

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)

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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Building upon 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 Painting

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.

Although some would later argue that Color Field Painting represented a new manifestation of a long tradition of sublime landscape (connected to a long-running topic of The Sublime in Art, 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.

The 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 shaped canvases, were important contributors to the movement who flew low under the public's radar of the time.

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Later 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

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.

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.

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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Helen FrankenthalerHelen Frankenthaler
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Clyfford StillClyfford Still
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Lee KrasnerLee Krasner
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Hans HofmannHans Hofmann
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Barnett NewmanBarnett Newman
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Most Important Art


"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
"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 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."
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

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