A Guide to Appreciating Abstract Expressionist Artwork
Conceptual art gets a bad rap. Let’s face it, it’s not unheard of for a person to look at an abstract expressionist work of art and genuinely utter, or at least think to themselves: “I can do that too!”, and who can blame them? It’s a running joke that’s been around ever since abstract works of art started fetching record prices in auctions. But out of all the avant-garde movements, abstract expressionism might just be the most misunderstood one of all. Viewers often don’t get it or refuse to embrace it. If it’s ever actually crossed your mind that an abstract expressionist piece looks like something a child could easily do, but you decided to keep the thought to yourself, you would not be the only one.
But the thing about easy abstract expressionism art is that it’s not easy at all, and it’s even less straightforward. No matter how simple and random creating an abstract expressionist painting may seem, it’s just not that simple. What you are seeing is not just a bunch of random scribbles and splatters of paint on a blank canvas.
Granted, these paintings don’t always have a conventional meaning for you to look for and find. Rather, they are created with the intention of encouraging viewers to be more imaginative while allowing artists to express themselves freely and create art spontaneously.
But it’s important to take one thing into consideration: when abstract expressionism was born, it was a brand new concept. From today’s perspective, it may seem easy enough to create and replicate, but back then, it was bold and fresh.
When abstract expressionism took off, it was revolutionary. It began in the aftermath of WW2 when the world was in need of change. It was also a predominantly American movement that for once made the US, not Paris, France, the center of the Western art world. In America, the most prominent Abstract Expressionists were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline.
A Short Lesson on Abstract Expressionist Art’s Origins
So, how did the abstract expressionist movement come to be? This American-born genre of art was birthed sometime during the 40s and the 50s by a group of artists who wanted to break free from the conventional techniques and subjects involved in making art. Another important hallmark of the movement was the fact that many of these artists were also in need of an exile in America: fascists were taking over Europe.
These artists were under the influence of Cubism and its heavy reliance on geometric composition, Surrealism’s unique spontaneity, and German Expressionist style and color. But of course, the uniquely American brand of ferocious individualism was an indispensable element of the movement and this, too, affected the dynamic process of creation itself.
In What Way Does Abstract Expressionism Actually Work?
The methodology was entirely abstract. Artists were free to improvise.
Instead of creating art in some deliberate, carefully planned, and calculated way, these artists turned to a more playful way of making art, relying on improvisation and spontaneity. In addition to abandoning the conventional art norms, the artists involved produced artworks that reflected their individual personalities.
This allowed them to dive deep into an inner source of inspiration and creativity. Drafting and preparation were no longer necessary parts of the process. That was no longer the point, and it no longer mattered. The end-result was the product of another process entirely.
That ends this short history lesson on how the abstract expressionism movement was born. The movement indeed broke ground when it was born and, yes, it absolutely influenced art in the decades to come. So when thinking about abstract expressionism, we absolutely have to take context into consideration.
Examples of Abstract Expressionism
Below are some of the most well-known artworks exemplifying this movement, along with our reasons to appreciate them.
Jackson Pollock’s Convergence
Does this painting remind you of the floor of the place you shared with your college roommate after a particularly wild party? Or does it look like an unsupervised kid got ahold of some paint cans and decided to give the floor a spur-of-the-moment makeover?
In fact, Pollock was all about using the floor as a canvas. He was also all about incorporating gravity, speed, and improvisation into his creations. This allowed him to successfully separate lines and colors from the conventional form.
And just like Pollock’s other creations, Convergence featured his signature drip technique. It was like Pollock was much more interested in recording the properties of paint than capturing coherence.
During the Cold War, Pollock’s works were featured in various exhibitions across the globe, and his works were symbolic of the freedoms denied to people in many parts of the world, but allegedly fostered under liberal democracy. In 1949, he was featured in LIFE magazine and he made history as the first artist given the voice to express his power of self-expression.
After the artist’s sudden, untimely death in a car accident in 1958, Donald Judd defined Pollock as an artist responsible for creating the movement that featured such innovations as wholeness and simplicity. We will never learn what else the artist would have delivered had he lived longer.
Mark Rothko’s No. 6
To you, this painting might seem like a bunch of color blocks stacked on top of each other or a close-up of something you’d see in a biology class. Almost similar to the color blocks kids love to play with, right?
In a changing world just beginning to recover from WW2, Rothko wanted to elicit an emotional response in viewers and deliver them from whatever negative or painful emotions they were keeping bottled up. He wanted the paintings to have a cathartic effect, and enable relief from strong, repressed emotions.
Although Rothko wasn’t a part of any art movement, the Latvian-born artist was dedicated to creating paintings that evoke strong emotions. After all, he himself said that he was dedicated to conveying a person’s basic emotions, like sadness, disgust, anger, and the like.
Such dedication allowed Rothko to be one of the most prominent artists in the abstract expressionist movement. He also took pride in the fact that a lot of people ended up breaking down or crying when they are face-to-face with one of his works. To him, that was a clear indication that he was able to express, channel, and evoke those basic emotions through his paintings.
For instance, Rothko’s No. 6 above was said to be about his struggle with his depression, which is represented by the darker colors in the upper portion of the painting. After the global damage done by the atrocities of WW2, Rothko’s creations might have brought some much-needed comfort to a lot of art enthusiasts.
Cy Twombly’s The Italians
This masterpiece might seem exactly like a bunch of unsupervised toddlers who were left alone with crayons and a freshly painted wall. But there’s more to this painting than the crayon-like doodles you see on the surface.
Cy Twombly’s works were inspired by his nearby surroundings in Europe. Ancient walls ended up covered in tons of old paintings, which look a lot like graffiti. This likely explains the graffiti-like quality of his paintings.
Even though Twombly kept his distance from the abstract expressionist movement, his extensive and expressive brushwork allowed his paintings to combine individual and mythological perspectives into one. This resulted in meaningful spatial paintings on all the surfaces he painted on.
Furthermore, Twombly believed strongly that the visual information we absorb, whether logically or emotionally, has the possibility to co-exist in absolute harmony. And even though he appears to employ a casual, laidback method of painting, Twombly seems to value the hybrid nature of his works above everything else.
Barnett Newman’s Onement III
You might just see this painting as a road with a solid line. Like always, there’s more to the picture than just the solid line you see in the middle of the painting.
Although Barnett Newman’s journey as a painter started at thirty years old, he still managed to become one of the prominent abstract expressionist painters of his time. His works are distinguished for having a vertical line that he refers to as a zip.
Even though his work seems strictly formal, he made sure not to leave out personal and political motives. After all, he thought that making art was all about building a world by employing a self-creative force.
On top of that, even though his creations were reflections on a particular topic, he made sure to stick to stay true to his one defining belief: paint as if it was being done for the first time in history. This gave his paintings a touch of raw emotion while also building into them vibrations of shared and individual experiences.
There you go! The ‘all-over’ paintwork of abstract expressionism may be an acquired taste and you may need to give it time, but it’s an important step in the evolution of art and so many styles developed because of or in spite of abstract expressionism.
With the help of the information above, your next trip to the art museum may be less puzzling and a lot more interesting. You might even find yourself appreciating abstract expressionist paintings a lot more. After all, the purpose of abstract expressionism was never about catering exclusively to the sophisticated crowd.
But if you’re with a companion and still find yourself struggling to find something meaningful to comment on abstract expressionist art and you find it difficult to put the emotions those colors evoke into words, remember that chances are that there are more people in the room who feel exactly the same.
Alternatively, just say wow, sigh, and move along.