Abstract Expressionism

The Development of Abstract Expressionism

Abstract expressionism was an American, post–World War II art movement.

Learning Objectives

Explain the abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Abstract expressionism has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic, and nihilistic. In practice, the term is applied to any number of artists working (mostly) in New York who had quite different styles, and even to work that is neither especially abstract nor expressionist.
  • Although it is true that spontaneity or the impression of spontaneity characterized many of the abstract expressionists works, most of these paintings involved careful planning, especially since their large size demanded it.
  • Abstract expressionist paintings share certain characteristics, including the use of large canvases and an all-over approach, in which the whole canvas is treated with equal importance.

Key Terms

  • New York School: The New York School (synonymous with abstract expressionist painting) was an informal group of American poets, painters, dancers, and musicians active in the 1950s and 1960s in New York City.

Abstract Expressionism Overview

Abstract expressionism was an American post–World War II art movement. Although the term abstract expressionism was first applied to American art in 1946 by the art critic Robert Coates, it had been used previously in Germany’s Der Sturm magazine in 1919.

Abstract expressionism is derived from the combination of the emotional intensity and self-denial of the German expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of the European abstract schools, such as futurism, the Bauhaus, and synthetic cubism. Additionally, it has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic, and nihilistic. In practice, the term is applied to any number of artists who worked (mostly) in New York during the 1940s.

Abstract expressionism has many stylistic similarities to the Russian artists of the early 20th century, such as Wassily Kandinsky. Although it is true that spontaneity or the impression of spontaneity characterized many of the abstract expressionists’ works, in reality most of these paintings involved careful planning, especially since their large size demanded it. In many instances, abstract art implied the expression of ideas that concern the spiritual, the unconscious, and the mind.

Characteristics of Abstract Expressionist Painting

Abstract expressionism expanded and developed the definitions and possibilities that artists had available in the creation of new works of art. Although abstract expressionism spread quickly throughout the United States, the major centers of this style were New York and California. Abstract expressionist paintings share certain characteristics, including the use of large canvases and an all-over approach, in which the whole canvas is treated with equal importance (as opposed to the center being of more interest than the edges).

 

This photo shows the painting No. 5. Jackson Pollock is known for his techniques in action painting, a style of abstract expressionism in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied, as seen in this painting done in 1948.

No. 5: Jackson Pollock is known for his techniques in action painting, a style of abstract expressionism in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed, or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied, as seen in this painting done in 1948.

Jackson Pollock’s energetic action paintings, with their busy feel, are different both technically and aesthetically from the violent and grotesque Women series of Willem de Kooning. In contrast to the emotional energy and gestural surface marks of Pollock and de Kooning, the color-field painters initially appeared to be cool and austere, eschewing the individual mark in favor of large, flat areas of color, which these artists considered to be the essential nature of visual abstraction, along with the actual shape of the canvas. In later years, color-field painting has proven to be both sensual and deeply expressive, albeit in a different way from gestural abstract expressionism.

New York

During the period leading up to and during World War II, modernist artists, writers, and poets, as well as important collectors and dealers, fled Europe and the onslaught of the Nazis for safe haven in the United States. New York replaced Paris as the new center of the art world.

The 1940s in New York City heralded the triumph of American abstract expressionism—a modernist movement that combined lessons learned from Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Surrealism, Joan Miró, Cubism, Fauvism, and early Modernism via the great teachers who arrived in America, like Hans Hofmann from Germany and John D. Graham from Russia.

Graham’s influence on American art during the early 1940s was particularly visible in the work of Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. Gorky’s contributions to American and world art are difficult to overestimate. His works—such as The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, The Betrothal II, and One Year the Milkweed—immediately prefigured abstract expressionism.

Jackson Pollock

During the late 1940s, Jackson Pollock’s radical approach to painting revolutionized the potential for all contemporary art that followed him. To some extent, Pollock realized that the journey toward making a work of art was as important as the work of art itself.

Pollock redefined what it was to produce art. His move away from easel painting and conventionality was a liberating signal to the artists of his era and to all that came after. Artists realized that Jackson Pollock’s process—the placing of unstretched raw canvas on the floor where it could be attacked from all four sides using artist materials and industrial materials—essentially took making art beyond any prior boundary.

Jackson Pollock and Action Painting

Action painting, created by Jackson Pollock, is a style in which paint is spontaneously splattered, smeared, or dripped onto the canvas.

Learning Objectives

Describe Jackson Pollock’s method of action painting

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Action painting was developed as part of the abstract expressionism movement that took place in post–World War II America, especially in New York, during the 1940s through until the early 1960s.
  • Action painting places the emphasis on the act of painting rather than the final work as an artistic object.
  • Jackson Pollock challenged traditional conventions of painting by using synthetic, resin-based paints, laying his canvas on the floor, and using hardened brushes, sticks, and even basting syringes to apply paint.

Key Terms

  • abstract: Art that does not depict objects in the natural world, but instead uses color and form in a non-representational way.
  • aesthetic: Concerned with beauty, artistic impact, or appearance.

Action Painting

Action painting is a style of painting in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed, or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied with a brush. The resulting work often emphasizes the physical act of painting itself as an essential aspect of the finished work.

Action painting is inextricably linked to abstract expressionism, a school of painting popular in post-World War II America that was characterized by the view that art is non-representational and chiefly improvisational. The major artists associated with this movement are Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko, among others.

The term action painting was coined by the American art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 in his essay The American Action Painters, signaling a major shift in the aesthetic perspective of the New York School painters and critics. According to Rosenberg, the canvas was not an object, but rather “an arena in which to act. ”

Rosenberg’s critique shifted the emphasis from the object to the struggle of painting itself, with the finished work being only the physical manifestation, a kind of residue, of the actual work of art, which was in the process of the painting’s creation.

Action painting refers to the spontaneous activity that was the action of the painter—through arm and wrist movement, painterly gestures— and led to paint that was thrown, splashed, stained, splattered, poured, and dripped. The painter would sometimes let the paint drip onto the canvas while rhythmically dancing or even while standing on top of the unstretched canvas laying on the floor—both techniques invented by one of the most important abstract expressionists: Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock

My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides, and literally be in the painting.

Born in Cody, Wyoming in 1912, Jackson Pollock moved to New York City in 1930, where he studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League of New York. In 1948 he married the American painter Lee Krasner, and they moved to what is now known as the Pollock-Krasner House and Studio in the Springs area of East Hampton, Long Island, NY.

A photo of the exterior of the Pollock Barn. It is a plain, small house with dark shingles and white windows.

The Pollock Barn: Pollock’s studio in Springs, New York.

Materials and Process

After his move to Springs, he began painting with his canvases laid out on the studio floor, turning to synthetic, resin-based paints called alkyd enamels. These were much more fluid than traditional paint and, at that time, were a novel medium. Pollock described his use of household paints, instead of fine art paints, as “a natural growth out of a need.”

He used hardened brushes, sticks, and even basting syringes as paint applicators. By defying the convention of painting on an upright surface, he added a new dimension by being able to view and apply paint to his canvases from all directions—the term all-over painting has been used to describe some of his work, as well as the work of other artists from that time.

In the process of making paintings in this way, he moved away from figurative representation, and challenged the Western tradition of using easel and brush. In addition, he also moved away from the use of only the hand and wrist, since he used his whole body to paint.

This black and white photo shows Jackson Pollock at work in his studio.

Jackson Pollock in his studio: The artist threw, splashed, stained, splattered, poured, and dripped paint to create his works.

Titles with Numbers

Pollock wanted an end to the search for figurative elements in his paintings, so he abandoned titles and started numbering his paintings instead. The numbering relates to the way composers title their works. Furthering the musical metaphor, Pollock’s action paintings have been often described as improvisational works of art, similar to how jazz musicians approach the performance of a piece.

Death

At the peak of his fame, Pollock abruptly abandoned the drip style and by 1951 his works had turned darker in color. This was followed by a return to color, and he reintroduced figurative elements. During this period Pollock moved to a more commercial gallery and there was great demand from collectors for his new paintings.

In response to this pressure, along with personal frustration, his long-term problem with alcoholism worsened. He painted his two last works in 1955. On August 11, 1956, Pollock died in a single-car crash in his Oldsmobile convertible while driving under the influence of alcohol.

After Pollock’s demise at age 44, his widow, Lee Krasner, managed his estate and ensured that Pollock’s reputation remained strong despite changing art-world trends. They are both buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs, Long Island, NY.

Color-Field Painting

Color-field painting can be recognized by its large fields of solid color spread across or stained into the canvas to create areas of unbroken surface and a flat picture plane.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate color-field painting from other contemporary abstract art such as abstract expressionism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Color-field painting is a style of abstract painting that emerged in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s. It is closely linked to abstract expressionism, post-painterly abstraction, and lyrical abstraction.
  • Distinct from the emotional energy and gestural surface marks and paint handling seen in the work of abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock, color-field painting came across as cool and austere.
  • The movement places less emphasis on gesture, brushstrokes, and action in favor of an overall consistency of form and process, with color itself becoming the subject matter.
  • Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, and Morris Louis are among the many artists who used color-field techniques in their work.
  • Color-field painters revolutionized the way paint could be effectively applied, through their use of acrylic paint and techniques such as staining and spraying.

Key Terms

  • abstract expressionism: An American genre of modern art that used improvised techniques to generate highly abstract forms.
  • action painting: A genre of modern art in which the paint is dribbled, splashed, or poured onto the canvas to obtain a spontaneous and totally abstract image.
  • lyrical abstraction: A type of abstract painting related to abstract expressionism; in use since the 1940s.

Color-Field Painting

Color-field painting is a style of abstract painting that emerged in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s. Inspired by European modernism and closely related to abstract expressionism, many of its notable early proponents were among the pioneering abstract expressionists.

Color-field is characterized primarily by its use of large fields of flat, solid color spread across or stained into the canvas to create areas of unbroken surface and a flat picture plane. The movement places less emphasis on gesture, brushstrokes, and action than abstract expressionism, favoring instead an overall consistency of form and process, with color itself becoming the subject matter.

Encompassing several decades from the mid-20th century through the early 21st century, the history of  color-field painting can be separated into three separate but related generations of painters:

  1. Abstract expressionism.
  2. Post-painterly abstraction.
  3. Lyrical abstraction.

Some of the artists made works in all three eras that relate to all of the three styles.

Clement Greenberg

The focus of attention in the contemporary art world began to shift from Paris to New York after World War II and the development of American Abstract Expressionism. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Clement Greenberg was the first art critic to suggest and identify a dichotomy between differing tendencies within the abstract expressionist canon—especially between action painting and what Greenberg termed post-painterly abstraction (today known as color-field).

Color-Field Formats

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, young artists began to break away stylistically from abstract expressionism, experimenting with new ways of handling paint and color. Moving away from the gesture and angst of action painting towards flat, clear picture planes and a seemingly calmer language, color-field artists used formats of stripes, targets, and simple geometric patterns to concentrate on color as the dominant theme their paintings.

Color-field painting initially referred to a particular type of abstract expressionism, exemplified especially in the work of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb and several series of paintings by Joan Miró.

Color-field painting sought to rid art of superfluous rhetoric and gesture. Artists like Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Friedel Dzubas, and Frank Stella often used greatly reduced formats, simplified or regulated systems, and basic references to nature to draw the focus of the painting to color, and the interactions of color, as the most important element.

This painting is composed of a full circle in the middle with two half circles attached to it on the upper left and lower right. Two squares lay over the full circle, connecting the half circles. All of the shapes are made of multi-colored bands.

Harran II: During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Frank Stella was a significant figure in the emergence of minimalism, post-painterly abstraction, and color-field painting. His shaped canvases of the 1960s revolutionized abstract painting, such as this one from 1967.

A bullseye-like image using the colors black, blue, red, and white.

Beginning: This color-field painting is characterized by simple geometric forms and repetitive, regulated systems. It was painted by Kenneth Noland in 1958.

This painting is a red rectangle with a narrow strip of blue on the left border and a narrow strip of yellow on the right border.

Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?: The flat, solid picture plane that is typical of color-field paintings is evident in this 1966 piece by Barnet Newman, where the color red takes centre stage.

An important distinction between color-field painting and abstract expressionism is the way paint is handled. The most basic defining technique of painting is the application of paint, and the color-field painters revolutionized the way paint could be effectively applied.

Water-soluble, artist-quality acrylic paints first became commercially available in the early 1960s, coinciding with the color-field movement. The most common applications were:

  • Stain painting, where artists mix and dilute their paint in buckets or coffee cans to make it a more fluid liquid, then pour it onto raw, unprimed canvas and draw shapes and areas as they stain.
  • Spray painting, a technique using a spray gun to create large expanses and fields of color sprayed across the canvas.
  • The use of stripes.

Color-field painting initially appeared to be cool and austere due to these methods of handling paint that tended to eschew the individual mark of the artist. However, color-field painting has proven to be both sensual and deeply expressive, albeit in a different way from gestural abstract expressionism.

Three vertical panels in three different colors sit on top of four horizontal panels in four different colors.

Big A: Jack Bush was a color-field painter who used geometric, simple forms to highlight the pure interaction of color, as can be seen in this 1968 work.

The New York School

The New York School was an informal group of American abstract painters and other artists that was active in the 1950s and 1960s.

Learning Objectives

Explain what the New York School is known for and who its proponents were

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The New York School was an informal group of abstract painters and other artists in NYC though it has become associated most with the abstract expressionist movement. Although abstract expressionism spread quickly throughout the United States, the major centers of this style were New York City and California.
  • New York School artists drew inspiration from surrealism and contemporary art movements such as action painting, abstract expressionism, jazz, improvisational theater, and experimental music.
  • The work of the New York School was documented through annual exhibitions of painting and sculpture from 1951–1957, most notably in the 9th Street Art Exhibition.
  • In addition to painting, the New York School was associated with many poets, dancers, composers, jazz musicians, and writers.

Key Terms

  • surrealism: An artistic movement and an aesthetic philosophy, pre-dating abstract expressionism, that aims for the liberation of the mind by emphasizing the critical and imaginative powers of the subconscious.
  • GI Bill: The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known informally as the GI Bill, was a law that provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans (commonly referred to as GIs).
  • abstract expressionism: An American genre of modern art that used improvised techniques to generate highly abstract forms.

The New York School

The New York School was an informal group of American poets, painters, dancers, and musicians that was active in the 1950s and 1960s in New York City. It represented, and is often synonymous with, the art movement of aAbstract expressionism, such as the work of Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning.

The artists of the New York School drew their inspiration from surrealism and other contemporary, avant-garde art movements, in particular action painting, abstract expressionism, jazz, improvisational theater, experimental music, and the interaction of friends in the New York City art world’s vanguard circle.

This photo shows the painting No. 5. Jackson Pollack is known for his techniques in action painting, a style of abstract expressionism in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than carefully applied, such as this one done in 1948.

No. 5: Jackson Pollack is known for his techniques in action painting, a style of abstract expressionism in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than carefully applied, such as this one done in 1948.

A colorful, abstract painting of a woman with a big smile.

Woman V: Willem de Koonig was an influential abstract expressionist painter.

Abstract Expressionism

A school of painting that flourished after World War II until the early 1960s, abstract expressionism is characterized by the view that art is non-representational and chiefly improvisational. Abstract expressionist paintings share certain characteristics, including the use of large canvases, and an all-over approach whereby the whole canvas is treated with equal importance (as opposed to the center being of more interest than the edges). The canvas as the arena became a credo of action painting, while the integrity of the picture plane became a credo of the color-field painters.

The post-World War II era benefited some of the artists who were recognized early on by art critics. Some artists from New York, such as Norman Bluhm and Sam Francis, took advantage of the GI Bill and left for Europe, to return later with acclaim.

Many artists from all across the U.S. arrived in New York City to seek recognition, and by the end of the decade the list of artists associated with the New York School had greatly increased. Painters, sculptors, and printmakers created art that was termed action painting, fluxus, color-field painting, hard-edge painting, pop art, minimal art and lyrical abstraction, among other styles and movements associated with abstract expressionism.

9th Street Art Exhibition

The 9th Street Art Exhibition was held on May 21–June 10, 1951. It was a historical, ground-breaking exhibition that gathered a number of notable artists, and it was the stepping-out of the post-war New York avant-garde, collectively known as the New York School.

The show was hung by Leo Castelli, as he was liked by most of the artists and thought of as someone who would hang the exhibition without favoritism. The opening of the show was a great success. According to the critic, historian, and curator Bruce Altshuler, “It appeared as though a line had been crossed, a step into a larger art world whose future was bright with possibility.”

Interdisciplinary Influences in the New York School

In addition to painting, the New York School was associated with many poets, dancers, composers, jazz musicians, and writers. Poets drew on inspiration from surrealism and the contemporary avant-garde art movements, in particular the action painting of their friends in the New York City art world like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

In the 1960s, the work of the avant-garde minimalist composers La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Tony Conrad, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley became prominent in the New York art world. The new bebop and cool jazz musicians in the 1940s and 1950s (such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Gerry Mulligan) coincided with the New York School and abstract expressionism.

There are also commonalities among the New York School and members of the beat-generation poets who were active in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in New York City, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Diane Wakoski, and several others.

Abstract Expressionist Sculpture

During the postwar period, many sculptors made work in the prevalent styles of the time: abstract expressionism, minimalism and pop art.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate how sculpture from 1945–1970 was influenced by abstract expressionism, minimalism, and pop art

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Abstract expressionist sculpture was greatly influenced by surrealism and its emphasis on spontaneous or subconscious creation.
  • Minimalist sculptures often set out to expose the essence or identity of a subject through the elimination of all non-essential forms or concepts. These works are often characterized by geometric, cubic forms, equality of parts, repetition, neutral surfaces, and the use of industrial materials.
  • The sculptors Claes Oldenburg and George Segal were important proponents of pop art in their use of found-objects and how they reproduced everyday commercial objects as fine art.

Key Terms

  • pop art: An art movement that emerged in the 1950s, that presented a challenge to traditions of fine art by including imagery from popular culture such as advertising, news, etc.
  • found object: A natural object, or one manufactured for some other purpose, considered as part of a work of art.

Abstract Expressionism and Sculpture

While Abstract Expressionism is most closely associated with painting, a number of sculptors were integral to the movement as well. David Smith, Dorothy Dehner, Herbert Ferber, Isamu Noguchi, Ibram Lassaw, Theodore Roszak, Phillip Pavia, Mary Callery, Richard Stankiewicz, Louise Bourgeois, and Louise Nevelson in particular were considered to be important members of the movement.

Similar to abstract expressionist painting, sculptural work from the movement was greatly influenced by surrealism and its emphasis on spontaneous or subconscious creation. Abstract expressionist sculpture, like painting from the movement, was more interested in process than product, which can make it difficult to visually distinguish works by aesthetics alone, so it is important to take into account what the artist has to say about their process.

The sculptures of David Smith, for example, sought to express two-dimensional subjects that had never before been shown in three dimensions. His work blurred the distinctions between sculpture and painting, generally making use of delicate tracery rather than solid form, with a two-dimensional appearance that contradicted the traditional idea of sculpture in the round.

A wooden looking sculpture made up of abstract images. There is a central piece with string-like objects on either side.

Ancient Household: David Smith was an important abstract expressionist sculptor.

Minimalism

Minimalism during the 1960s and 1970s was a reaction against the painterly subjectivity of abstract expressionism that dominated the previous decades. Minimalist artists explicitly stated that their art was not about self-expression. Instead, Minimalist works often set out to expose the essence or identity of a subject through the elimination of all non-essential forms or concepts.

These works are often characterized by geometric, cubic forms, equality of parts, repetition, neutral surfaces, and the use of industrial materials. Some prominent artists who worked with sculpture and were associated with minimalism (though not all agreed with the association) include Donald Judd, John McCracken, Anthony Caro, Tony Smith, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, and Dan Flavin.

Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin was an American minimalist famous for creating sculptural objects and installations from commercially available fluorescent light fixtures. The lack of the mark of the artist’s hand in these cases speak to the notion of exposing the true form of the sculptural object, a significant tenet of the minimalist movement.

Donald Judd

Donald Judd, who disavowed the term minimalism, and preferred to refer to his sculptures as specific objects, used simple, repeated forms to explore space. His works were often fabricated (rather than sculpted) out of metals, industrial plywood and concrete, and therefore defied easy classification as sculpture.

Judd’s “Untitled,” 1977, applies the simplicity and geometric form typical of minimalist works. Fabricated from concrete, the piece comes across as potentially industrially created as it lacks the mark of the artist’s hand that is so often seen in works of art, favoring instead a cool austerity that highlights the qualities of the form and the material used to fabricate it.

A concrete circle placed inside another concrete circle. Sculpture is outside in a field.

Untitled: Donald Judd, who disavowed the term minimalism, preferred to refer to his sculptures as specific objects. Judd uses simple, repeated forms to explore space.

Pop Art

There were numerous artists working in sculpture who were associated with the pop art movement. Two important examples are Claes Oldenburg and George Segal.

Claes Oldenburg

Oldenburg began his artistic practice as part of a group of artists reacting to Abstract Expressionism’s sublime gestures with figural drawings and papier mache sculptures. His artistic trajectory took him from making found-object paintings littered with urban debris to plaster sculptures of everyday commercial and manufactured objects. He subsequently created sculptures of similar subjects on larger and larger scales, first sewing soft sculptures out of canvas, then turning to large outdoor monuments in public spaces.

George Segal

George Segal, another artist associated with the pop-art movement, was best known for his life-size figures made from plaster and bandage casts. These figures, often left with minimal color and detail and given a ghostly, hollow appearance, inhabited tableaux constructed of found objects such as a street corner, a bus, or a diner.

Common practices seen in pop-art sculptural work include the display of found art objects, the representation of consumer goods, the placing of typical non-art objects within a gallery setting, and the abstraction of familiar objects. We can see this abstraction in such works as Plug by Oldenburg.

This reproduction of a familiar or mundane object is displayed at such an increased size that the subject matter becomes abstracted, its original function simultaneously altered and highlighted.

A giant electric plug with two prongs and a glimpse of two electrical outlet holes.

Plug: Claes Oldenburg produced oversized reproductions of familiar objects in increased sizes to abstract the subject matter, such as this one done in 1970.