Abstract Expressionism

The Impression of Spontaneity

The end of World War II marked a turning point in history, not only for politics and society but also for art. After years of conflict, many European artists fled to America to escape oppressive regimes and a devastated landscape. As a result, New York City became the hub of the art world, attracting a diverse group of European artists like Salvador Dalì, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, and Arshile Gorky, along with influential German teachers such as Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann.

This influx of talent had a profound impact on American artists, who were exposed to new forms of art through institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum (formerly the Museum of Non-Objective Painting), and galleries such as Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the art world was transformed by the emergence of Abstract Expressionism—a dynamic and groundbreaking movement led by a group of American artists. Often referred to as the New York School, this loosely connected group of painters redefined what it meant to create modern art in America. Their innovative style and approach challenged traditional artistic conventions and set the stage for a new era of creativity and experimentation. It was the first American visual art movement to gain international recognition.

One of the most significant aspects of abstract expressionism is the emphasis on the process of creating art. The artists of this movement believed that the act of painting was more important than the finished product. They would often work on large canvases placed on the floor, allowing them to use their whole body to create the art. They would also use unconventional tools such as sticks and knives to apply the paint, creating dynamic and textured surfaces.

Arshile Gorky. Garden in Sochi, 1943. Oil on canvas, 31 x 39” (78.7 x 99 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.

Arshile Gorky. The Liver Is The Cock’s Comb, 1944. Oil on canvas, 73 1/4 x 98 3/8” (186 x 249.8 cm). Buffalo AKG Art Museum, Buffalo, USA.

Arshile Gorky is considered to be a key figure in the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. His art is known for its biomorphic forms and lyrical use of color, as well as its connection to personal experiences and memories. Some of Gorky’s most well-known works Garden in Sochi (1943) and The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944) demonstrate his mastery of color, composition, and texture, as well as his ability to convey complex emotions through abstract forms.

Jackson Pollock. White Light, 1954. Oil, enamel, and aluminum paint on canvas, 48 1/4 x 38 1/4” (122.4 x 96.9 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA (Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection).

Jackson Pollock. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950. Enamel on canvas, 8’ 9” × 17’ 3” (266.7 × 525.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

Perhaps it is the New York School poet and art critic Frank O’Hara who describes the movement best: “You just go on your nerve.” There are two main sub-styles of abstract expressionism: action painting and color field painting. Action painting is characterized by energetic, gestural brushstrokes, and drips of paint that often cover the entire canvas. It is associated with artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, and Franz Kline.

Jackson Pollock developed the widely-recognized drip technique, in which the whole body was utilized to splatter, splash, or fling paint across large canvases. The aim of Pollock’s technique is highlighted in art critic Harold Rosenberg’s prolific essay “The American Action Painters” (1952), which states that “what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Overall, Pollock’s revolutionary painting style brought vitality, energy, and life back into painting.

Willem de Kooning. Woman I, 1950–52. Oil and metallic paint on canvas, 6’ 3 7/8” x 58” (192.7 x 147.3 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

De Kooning was also creating his own style of art, characterized by energetic brushstrokes and expressive movements. He often incorporated elements of figurative art into his work, resulting in a style that oscillates between abstraction and representation. His paintings are known for their powerful expressiveness and the dynamic tension created by the interplay of form and color.

Mark Rothko. No. 3/No. 13 (Magenta, Black, Green on Orange), 1949. Oil on canvas, 7’ 1 3/8” x 65” (216.5 x 164.8 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.

Barnett Newman. Canto VII from 18 Cantos, 1964. Lithography, 14 9/16 x 12 15/16” (37 x 32.9 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.

Color field style, on the other hand, is characterized by large, flat areas of color and simple geometric shapes. It is associated with artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Their large-scale, non-objective imagery without the energetic intensity and gestural quality of action painting encouraged meditation and personal reflection.

Along with Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and others, Franz Kline made a considerable impact on this rising form of artistic expression, particularly through his abstraction and awareness of the painterly surface. In Painting Number 2, Kline’s thick slashes of black across a white canvas would become his signature. Both architectural and calligraphic, splotchy and bold, Kline captures some of Pollock’s visceral technique while channeling the minimalism of Barnett Newman.

Franz Kline. Painting Number 2, 1954. Oil on canvas, 6’ 8 1/2” x 8’ 11” (204.3 x 271.8 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.

During the 1940s – mid 1950s, Abstract Expressionism emerged as the leading artistic movement among not only artists in the United States but also overseas. However, it proved to be unsustainable in the long run, especially as America transitioned into a postwar era dominated by corporatization. Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism proved to be better suited to this new environment. Nevertheless, the Abstract Expressionists remain a significant part of history, as they were the pioneers who transformed American exceptionalism into art.

Quotes

“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes.” —Arshile Gorky

“The modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.” —Jackson Pollock

“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. Then there could be new paintings again.” —Willem De Kooning

“I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” —Mark Rothko

“The final test of a painting, theirs, mine, any other, is: does the painter’s emotions come across?” —Franz Kline

Recommended books

References

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