The Style, and the Controversy
You are standing in front of a canvas filled with vibrant splashes of colour, bold, unedited brushstrokes, and shapes that seem to dance and swirl. Perhaps it comes off as a visually appealing, balanced composition, overpowering you …
… or perhaps it comes off as an utter mess. You look around, wondering why everyone is pretending to see the value in these pieces.
The latter, in particular, is partly why Abstract Expressionism was (and remains) disruptive. “Why is this painting revered, when a four-year-old with a canvas and paint could produce a similar mess?” – we’ve all heard comments like this. But it’s important to remember that the artists in this movement sought to capture a feeling – not an image. Sometimes the feelings we have inside are approachable and pleasant; other times they are raw, ugly, or downright violent. In this sense, Abstract Expressionism was an embrace of the human spirit and a commitment to the artist’s process, rather than the result. Your enjoyment of the result is not always relevant!
Setting the Stage: What did Abstract Expressionism Emerge From?
World War II resulted in an exodus of artists from Europe to the United States, along with many important members of the European art establishment. With key European art cities such as Paris having shifted their focus to rebuilding, the stage was set for New York to become a new center of the contemporary art scene.
The rebellious, idiosyncratic style of the Abstract Expressionists was the perfect catapult to launch New York onto the world stage. The events of World War II were unspeakable, and Abstract Expressionist artists excelled at capturing that which words and concepts failed to.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression influenced a popular style of art in the United States called Social Realism. Artworks of this movement consisted of realistic portrayals of depression era hardships, often as a political statement. One viewpoint of the dramatic departure of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and 50s is that it was a reaction to Social Realism’s focus on the external world. After the disappointments of the first half of the century, perhaps artists sought refuge internally, rather than from the structures and institutions around them.
From a more literal standpoint, one can infer Abstract Expressionism’s influences from the name:
Abstract: a composition which does not attempt to capture or recreate a tangible image. Some movements which fit under the abstract category prior to Abstract Expressionism, and are thought to have influenced it, were Futurism, the Bauhaus, and Synthetic Cubism.
Expressionism: artworks capturing an internal emotional experience, rather than an external reality. The German Expressionists are thought to have influenced the Abstract Expressionist movement, through their portrayals of intense emotion and use of non-naturalistic colours.
Surrealism, which is focused on the unfiltered, illogical expression of the subconscious mind, is also thought to have influenced Abstract Expressionism. Both value a similar, unconscious form of expression.
Two of the most well-known sub-categories of the Abstract Expressionist movement are action painting and colour field painting.
The critic who coined the term action painting called the canvas “an arena in which to act”, and refers to the mindset that planning and restraint impedes the creative process. Action painters were deliberately spontaneous, pouring thick streams of paint and allowing it to flow, flicking a paintbrush to create uncontrolled splashes, throwing paint cans… the list goes on! These artists were famously messy.
Jackson Pollock stands out as one of the most iconic action painters with his revolutionary drip paintings. He danced around his canvases, dripping and flinging paint with wild energy while they lay flat on the floor.
Looking at a colour field painting, it might be hard to believe that it lives under the same category as action painting. These painting take colour as their subject, contrasting large regions, or fields, of uninterrupted colour in a flat, one-dimensional style. They might feel orderly and calm relative to the chaos of action painting, but colours, too, are powerful conduits of emotion. Many viewers find themselves intensely moved by these deceptively simple paintings.
Amongst the most prominent of the colour field painters was Mark Rothko. His paintings contain large monochrome (single colour) fields which seem simple from afar, but on closer inspection reveal carefully blended hues and intense layering. The softness and layering culminate into paintings of enormous depth, causing the viewer to feel as if they are staring into an endless pool.
Though Mark Rothko is the most notable colour field painter, and thus is grouped with Abstract Expressionists, he rejected this categorization outright. This goes to show that the classification of art movements and genres is highly subjective!
Beyond the icons, it’s important to credit lesser-known artists who played an important role in the movement. Alma Thomas broke barriers as a pioneering black female artist, creating lively abstract paintings with intricate dotted patterns and a joyful palette of primary colours. Sam Gilliam experimented with space and dimensionality with his inventive use of draped canvas’. Norman W. Lewis exemplified America’s transition from social realism into abstract expressionist art, bringing concepts about his community, society, and politics into increasingly abstract compositions. Lee Krasner, often limited by her classification as “Jackson Pollock’s wife”, created energetic, vibrant works that stand entirely on their own.
Abstract Expressionism’s Impact on Contemporary Art
Abstract Expressionism’s rebellious approach to art-making freed artists from the pressure to pursue perfection, encouraging them to delve into their idiosyncratic inner worlds. The movement’s unwavering commitment to the process of creation deeply resonated with artists’ sense of purpose and integrity. Contemporary artists continue to prioritize the act of creation, exploring unconventional materials, techniques, and conceptual ideas that echo the experimental spirit of Abstract Expressionism. The movement’s impact can be observed in most of the contemporary movements which succeeded it, including Pop Art, Minimalism, Abstract Impressionism, Neo-Expressionism, and Street Art.