In the history of American painting, abstract expressionism refers to an art movement that was established after World War II. This movement started during the 1940s, in New York. In fact, it has become the very first American movement that became known on an international level. Eventually, abstract expressionism made New York the focal point of art in the western world, which made it widely recognized by other nations. In 1946, Robert Coates, an art critic, first applied the term abstract expressionism in reference to American art. However, there were some scholars who argue about the fact that the terminology was noted in Der Sturm, a German magazine. It was in 1919 when this term was used to describe German Expressionism. Moreover, Alfred Barr, pertained to masterpieces by the artist Wassily Kandinsky as abstract expressionism, which was noted to have been in 1929.
Style Behind Abstract Expressionism
Abstract expressionism is more focused on spontaneity and subconscious means of creating an artwork. It is also considered as a technique with surrealism as its predecessor. For instance, one of the known artists who used this technique was Jackson Pollock. His well-known masterpiece featured a dripping paint that was placed on a canvas that was left on the floor. According to critics, this technique was evident in the artworks of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Max Ernst and Andre Masson. Their use of abstract elements in their paintings invoked powerful messages and emotions.
Another artist who was known to present qualities of abstract expressionism in his artworks was Mark Tobey. This American Northwest painter was renowned for his white writing technique on canvases. While his canvases might not be as large as the ones used by Pollock, there were some similarities such as the dripping appeal of the paint that was all over the canvas.
Origin of the Term
The term abstract expressionism originated from the German expressionists’ self-denial and emotional intensity towards the different techniques implemented in European abstract school including Synthetic Cubism, Bauhaus and Futurism. Furthermore, it provides a certain character of being nihilistic, rebellious and idiosyncratic.
In another aspect, abstract expressionism refers to New York artists who incorporated unique and various styles that cannot be categorized as either expressionist or abstract. For instance, Jay Meuser, a known abstract expressionist from California, had always painted his subjects in a way that was non-objective in nature. He talked about his artwork entitled the Mare Nostrum, and he believed in the importance of presenting the whole image and “glorious spirit of the sea” instead of focusing more on every single aspect that makes up the subject.
There was also the famous works of Pollock whose paintings offered much energy, action and movement in his masterpieces. Another artist such as Willem de Kooningfeatured images of grotesque and violent women in a figurative aspect. As for Mark Rothko, he created Color Field paintings that were evidently abstract in nature.
It is worth noting that abstract expressionists created paintings that were somewhat similar with the ones made by Russian artists including Wassily Kandinsky, which was painted during the early 20th century. While it may appear that spontaneity is a common quality in most works by abstract expressionists, it is a fact that these works involve much planning. This is particularly true in using a large canvas where symmetry and size do matter.
Other well known artists of abstract expressionism included Paul Klee, Emma Kunz, Wassily Kandinsky and Agnes Martin, to name a few. As what may be observed from their paintings, it is evident that abstract art is indeed more of an expression of ideas, which involve different facets such as the mind, unconscious and spiritual. Hence, there is much depth in every abstract artwork and it reveals a deeper meaning rather than a mere combination of colors and figures.
In the 1950s, abstract expressionism obtained mainstream popularity, although this remains a debatable topic. In the United States, American social realism has received acceptance from the public, in the 1930s. Based on scholars, this technique was influenced by the Great Depression in the country, as well as the works of some renowned muralists during that era including Diego Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
During post World War II era, social protests of famous muralists were barely tolerated. Thus, abstract expressionism was formed as early as the 1940s, and paintings in this genre were showcased at The Art of this Century Gallery, among a few other galleries in New York City. Since artistic censorship was prevalent in the US after the Second World War, artists found a way to impart their message in an abstract way that will not stir political issues.
Post War Era
At the time of World War II, various artists, poets and writers decided to flee Europe and headed off to the United States. These artists and art collectors who came to New York included Yves Tanguy, Max and Jimmy Ernst, Kay Sage, Hans Namuth, Leo Castelli, Roberto Matta, Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Andre Masson, Peggy Guggenheim, and Marcel Duchamp. On the other hand, there were other artists who remained in Europe, particularly in France, where they survived from the war including Pierre Bonnard,Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
In New York City, a group of artists started the movement called Abstract Expressionism, in the 1940s. This was a modernist movement where several artists presented their works that were influenced by several personalities such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, and Man Ray, who excelled in Cubism, early Modernism and Fauvism.
John D. Graham, an artist from Russia, had a huge impact on American Art, specifically at the onset of the 1940s. His influences were evident in the works of Willem de Kooning, Richard Pousette-Dart, Arshile Gorky, and Jackson Pollock, among several other artists. Gorky, in particular, became famous for his contributions to art. He was known for his paintings that served as a lyrical abstraction that paved the way for newer generations of artists to express their own techniques. Among his renowned works include One Year the Milkweed, The Bethrotal II and The Liver is the Cock’s Comb.
In addition to Gorky, there were other artists that served as an inspiration to others such as Peggy Guggenheim, Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, and Fernand Leger. Hans Hofmann was another influential figure during that era, and he served as a mentor, artist and teacher during the early development and progress of abstract expressionism in the US.
Jackson Pollock and His Influences
By the latter part of the 1940s, a newer and more radical painting approach was introduced by Jackson Pollock. To him, the journey of creating an artwork is as significant as the end result of the painting. Throughout his life, the artist inspired several other painters in the abstract expressionism era, and they came up with their own innovative techniques.
With this in mind, the ingenuity of various artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Barnett Newman, Richard Pousette-Dart, Peter Voulkos, Ad Reinhardt, and Hans Hoffman paved the way for diverse art styles and techniques to gain popularity.
In the 1960s, various art movements were largely influenced may abstract expressionists, specifically from the innovativeness of Newman, Reinhardt, De Kooning, Pollock, Hoffman and Rothko. Furthermore, Anti-Formalists in the 1960s and 1970s such as Conceptual Art, Feminist Art Neo-Dada and Fluxus had some roots that can be traced to have come from abstract expressionism.
Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism
According to art critics, surrealism has a major impact on the concepts and themes involved in abstract expressionism. Although American artists were not quite comfortable with Europe’s Freudian symbolism, they were more interested in the unconscious and how it dwells in mythology and primitivism. These artists were also inspired by the concepts of Carl Jung, who stated that the collective unconscious had been passed through periods of time through archetypal symbols. This inspired numerous artists to move from Surrealism and into another technique.
Mark Rothko, for instance, experimented with the use of abstract symbols during the early 1940s. Eventually, he arrived to the use of color in abstract fields. As for Newman, he became popular for communicating messages through a single powerful symbol that he referred to as “zip” paintings. Aside from these two artists, there were other painters who tried to create their own breakthroughs including the “pure psychic automatism” by Andre Breton, and the drip technique by Pollock.
Soon, several abstract expressionists were inspired by Jackson Pollock’s paintings, where he was able to present a characteristic of control his masterpieces instead of a random way of building up paint on a canvas. This resulted to a group of action painters such as Motherwell, Kline and de Kooning who were know for their “all-over” effect.
Influence of Existentialism
Abstract expressionists soon came to realize that were some aspects of this art technique, which are no longer applicable to the post-war period. While existensialism was a popular philosophy in the post World War II era, it does not quite have a significant impact on abstract expressionists. However, it has been a common discussion among those who believe in the concept of abstract expressionism, as well as the art critics in this era.
For instance, Harold Rosenberg, one of the significant critics of the art movement, did an in-depth analysis of this issue that was featured in the ART News, in 1952. To him, the images set on canvas has become more than just a way to express an imagined or actual object. Instead, abstract art presents a picture as an event with a deeper meaning that what the eye can see. As a result, this resulted to the term “action painting”, although it held little space in the works of Newman and Rothko, among a few artists. On the other hand, this concept made sense to other painters including de Kooning, Kline and Pollock who all agreed in this idea.
Concept of Formalism
Clement Greenberg, an art critic, was one of the primary figures who promoted abstract expressionism. Primarily, he was not comfortable with discussing issues regarding concepts and content in art. However, he believed that modern art had changed and transitioned from formal lines. He took Pollock’s work as an example, and he was rather impressed by the artist’s work. In fact, he saw the works of abstract expressionists as quite impressive, and these appeared to address anything that was lacking with the avant-garde style of the Europeans.
Greenberg was also inspired by the concept of color field painting, although there were some people who thought of this technique as merely a different means of presenting an older approach to sublime landscapes. He was also moved by the masterpieces of another group of artists including Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler.
Developments in Later Years
By the 1960s, the movement’s initial affect had been assimilated, yet its methods and proponents remained highly influential in art, affecting profoundly the work of many artists who followed. Abstract Expressionism preceded Tachisme, Color Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction, Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimalism, Postminimalism, Neo-expressionism, and the other movements of the sixties and seventies and it influenced all those later movements that evolved. Movements which were direct responses to, and rebellions against abstract expressionism began with Hard-edge painting (Frank Stella, Robert Indiana and others) and Pop artists, notably Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein who achieved prominence in the US, accompanied by Richard Hamilton in Britain. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the US formed a bridge between abstract expressionism and Pop art. Minimalism was exemplified by artists such as Donald Judd, Robert Mangold and Agnes Martin.