Abstract Expressionism was a new form of painting developed by a small group of artists in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. It changed the landscape of painting forever, paving the way for contemporary art as we see it today. The most prominent American Abstract Expressionist painters - also known as the ‘New York School’ - were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko. Their works hang in museums and important collections all over the world.
It is important to note that the movement was born from an extraordinary time. The world was recovering from two world wars and this fed into a reflection of these dark times and the movement’s concerns with contemplation, expression and freedom. These young artists were troubled and anxious and wanted to express their concerns by producing new art of meaning and substance.
It is a common trope in history that creative ingenuity is borne out of times of great strife and change in society. These artists wanted to break free from the accepted conventions and create new ways of creating art.
Many European artists, including Salvador Dali and Piet Mondrian, fled to America during the war and this exposed the Abstract Expressionists to new influences. They were heavily influenced by the Surrealists and their emphasis on tapping the unconscious. One device used by the Surrealists was psychic automatism, in which the artist breaks free of the conscious mind by embodying automatic gesture and improvisation.
The different styles
The Abstract Expressionists all had very different styles, but were connected by their desire to express their emotions and convey a sense of their presence in the work. Often monumental in scale, their radical creations redefined the nature of painting. They were intended to create an encounter between the artist and viewer, rather than simply be admired from a distance. Within Abstract Expressionism, we can differentiate between two tendencies: the action painters and the colour field painters.
Jackson Pollock and action painting
Pollock is perhaps the most famous of the action painters and his work redefined what it is to produce art. He realised that the journey to creating was as important as the finished work itself. Rather than painting at an easel, he laid a large canvas on the floor and moved around it, pouring and dripping thinned paint onto the raw canvas. The paintings were entirely lacking in subject matter and the radical technique and sheer scale of the works were initially very shocking to viewers.
What was created on the canvas was not a painting, but an event. By viewing his paintings we become part of his energy, witnessing his body movements and expression in that moment in time.
Mark Rothko and colour field painting
Rothko led the way in the expressive potential of colour. Creating simple compositions with vast areas of a single, flat colour which were meant to produce a contemplative or meditative response. The colour field artists were deeply interested in religion and myth. Searching for transcendence, their expansive, emotive fields of colour were meant to engulf the viewer and inspire spiritual contemplation and intense feeling. As with Pollock and the others, scale contributed to the meaning and helped to instil a subliminal experience in the viewer.
Often, women artists are left out of the history books and it is the men whose work is celebrated and revered. Lee Krasner made a huge and valuable contribution to Abstract Expressionism during her lifetime, yet her work has always been overshadowed by that of her husband, Jackson Pollock.
Sadly often referred to as Mrs. Jackson Pollock, it was quietly murmured that she only managed to be exhibited due to her well-known husband. In fact, she was an incredibly ambitious and proficient artist long before the pair became a couple in 1942 and was highly influential in the founding of the Abstract Expressionist movement.
Krasner was remarkable in her versatility and artistic skill which, coupled with her intensive training in art theory, enabled her to revise her style and technique multiple times over the course of her career. Krasner was "rediscovered" by feminist art historians during the 1970s and lived to see a greater recognition of her art and career, which continues to grow to this day.
Today, abstract art created with emotion and feeling at its heart remains relevant in the art market and the boundaries of this form of painting continue to be pushed. The beauty in abstract art is that without meaningful forms, it is open to interpretation and gives you the freedom to explore the meaning yourself, enriching the viewer’s personal experience of the work.
Cover image via Newel Hunter