Abstract Expressionism 101

Abstract expressionism’s a term that’s been here for a while, but what is it really, and why is it such an important part of American art history?

abstract expressionism movement

What is abstract expressionism in art? The term “Abstract Expressionists” is often thrown around by those who aren’t art experts to describe the creative force behind any number of contemporary painting styles that lean toward conceptual art, but what was the original artistic movement that gave rise to this term? And how come many of these artists were European immigrants who came to America?

What Defines Abstract Expressionism?

Most people associate this prominent American painting style with an intoxicated Jackson Pollock splattering paint on a canvas. But let us examine the historical and artistic momentum that the abstract expressionism movement seized and the artists that played a pivotal role and paved the path for its development.

The United States contributed its first significant contribution to the worldwide art world in the 1950s and 1940s with a painting technique that would profoundly impact 20th and 21st-century art. American artists had role models to follow. Abstract expressionists merged the flatness and mathematics of expressionism, the German expressionist movement and color, and Surrealists’ proclivity for improvisation and spontaneous creativity into their frequently mural-sized canvases. This was the New World’s interpretation of concepts borrowed from European modernism.

What Are the Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism?

In the late 1930s, New York City was the place to be for American Abstract Expressionist artists, as the style was just beginning to emerge. But not all were American. European artists turned exile-seekers who had fled Europe to avoid the atrocities committed by fascists were working side by side with Americans struggling to overcome the impact of the Great Depression. 

The modern classics on display at museums like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which was established in 1929, and the Guggenheim Foundations Museum for Non-Objective Painting, which first opened its doors in 1939, had a significant influence on the art world.

In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art displayed a mural-sized version of Picasso’s Guernica (1937). That same year, the museum held its inaugural art show of works from the selection of Solomon R. Guggenheim, which primarily featured the pure abstraction of the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. The Mexican visual artist Diego Rivera toured the city and brought New York artisans to a scale that had never been seen before. The German immigrant and artist Hans Hofmann (1880–1966) became the primary teacher and philosopher of the emerging style at this time. Art critic Clement Greenberg’s strong support of Abstract Expressionism was based mainly on Hofmann’s view that the creator should explore the potential of the material rather than focusing on the subject matter. Things were set into motion and beginning to take form, albeit an abstract one.

What Does Abstract Expressionism Focus On?

When talking about Abstract Expressionists, we have to mention Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko who were at the heart of the New York School. The New York School was an informal group of New York City-based painters, sculptors, poets, dancers, and musicians active in the 1950s and 1960s. They drew inspiration from avant-garde movements, especially surrealism and abstract expressionism.

True to form, Abstract Expressionists, also known as the New York School, did not have an official association; however, they did share the same vision: to break away from traditional disciplines and techniques and, more importantly, to create entirely abstract paintings that reflect in versatile, gestural form the unique character, psyche, and feelings of the artist.

Clement Greenberg, a critic, coined the phrase “Color Field Painting” to describe the works of Still, Newman, and Rothko in 1955. This is because these painters aimed to provoke a contemplative, quiet response from spectators by using simple compositions and huge blocks of a single flat hue in their works.

What Is the Style of Abstract Expressionism?

The Color Field Painting school led the way for the most famous Abstract Expressionism artworks. Rothko and Noland are two artists that were prominent in the application of this style in their works. Color Field artists were primarily interested in the visual effects of applying solid blocks of color to a canvas.

It’s worth noting that Rothko’s work would not be called expressionist per se, and Rothko himself denied they were abstract. But in spite of that, the artist is classified as an abstract expressionist.

It is said that the goal of the Color Field movement was to achieve enlightenment, hoping that the work’s expansive, emotionally charged fields of color would transport the observer into a state of spiritual contemplation. In these works of art, the artist stripped away unnecessary details in favor of a more direct connection to the viewer made through the primary colors.

The artists all claimed that they were striving to do works that were “great” rather than “beautiful.” The importance of realistically portraying subjects was downplayed, liberating artists from antiquated painting techniques and allowing them to explore the symbolic potential of color.

In 1949, an article that featured images of Jackson Pollock in action while he painted his drip paintings was published in Life magazine. This story is mainly credited with popularizing the artist’s name. The energy of New York’s ever-shifting landscape was represented in the powerful and colossal black-and-white movements of Franz Kline’s paintings. Despite the vigorous mark-making that Willem de Kooning did in his hideous Woman series, expressive work had been frowned upon ever since the ascendancy of pure abstraction. This led to the debate that Willem de Kooning provoked.

Barnett Newman was known for painting vast areas of color that were broken up by a sequence of vertical zips. Mark Rothko’s paintings often consist of two or three lateral rectangles embedded within broader vertical support. This was his preferred format. 

Both painters were interested in exploring the psychological, emotional, and even spiritual potential of color, and their works were inviting, inspiring a slow, reflective viewing. Rothko wanted his works to evoke emotion and give people a religious experience that he himself had experienced while painting, not merely to have them focus on how colors interact.

The Russian artists working around the turn of the 20th century, such as Wassily Kandinsky, have a lot in common with the abstract expressionism movement in terms of aesthetics. Even though it is accurate that fluidity or the idea of spontaneity defined many of the conceptual expressionists’ paintings, which seemed to be the focal point, most of these were really the result of deliberate planning, mainly because their vast size required it.

Anne Ryan was another accomplished Abstract Expressionist who had a significant role in abstract expressionism. 

Abstract Expressionist Sculptures

While the movement is most commonly associated with painters and is seen as a revolution in painting.

It spread quickly across the country, abstract expressionist sculptures are not to be overlooked. These creations, too, challenged traditional concepts. 

American sculptors considered to be substantial contributors to the movement include David Smith and his wife Dorothy Dehner and Louise Nevelson, but also Richard Stankiewicz, John Chamberlain, Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, and other artists.