art

Abstract Expressionism

“It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academic painting. However, there is no such thing as good painting about nothing.”

SUMMARY OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM

“Abstract Expressionism” was never an ideal label for the movement, which developed in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. It was somehow meant to encompass not only the work of painters who filled their canvases with fields of color and abstract forms, but also those who attacked their canvases with a vigorous gestural expressionism. Still Abstract Expressionism has become the most accepted term for a group of artists who held much in common. All were committed to art as expressions of the self, born out of profound emotion and universal themes, and most were shaped by the legacy of Surrealism, a movement that they translated into a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma. In their success, these New York painters robbed Paris of its mantle as leader of modern art, and set the stage for America’s dominance of the international art world.

KEY IDEAS

Political instability in Europe in the 1930s brought several leading Surrealists to New York, and many of the Abstract Expressionists were profoundly influenced by Surrealism’s focus on mining the unconscious. It encouraged their interest in myth and archetypal symbols and it shaped their understanding of painting itself as a struggle between self-expression and the chaos of the subconscious.Most of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism matured in the 1930s. They were influenced by the era’s leftist politics, and came to value an art grounded in personal experience. Few would maintain their earlier radical political views, but many continued to adopt the posture of outspoken avant-gardists.Having matured as artists at a time when America suffered economically and felt culturally isolated and provincial, the Abstract Expressionists were later welcomed as the first authentically American avant-garde. Their art was championed for being emphatically American in spirit – monumental in scale, romantic in mood, and expressive of a rugged individual freedom.Although the movement has been largely depicted throughout historical documentation as one belonging to the paint-splattered, heroic male artist, there were several important female Abstract Expressionists that arose out of New York and San Francisco during the 1940s and ’50s who now receive credit as elemental members of the canon.

IMPORTANT ART AND ARTISTS OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM

The below artworks are the most important in Abstract Expressionism – that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Abstract Expressionism. Don’t forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

1957-D-No. 1 (1957)

Artist: Clyfford Still

Artwork description & Analysis: In the early 1940s Clyfford Still, like many other artists of the time, was primarily a representational painter, evoking moody dark scenes in somber colors. By the mid 1940s his work began to change with the appearances of dashes and jags of colored lines atop his paintings. This marked his own shift into Abstract Expressionism as a non-objective painter interested in juxtaposing different colors and surfaces into a variety of formations. 

Although known for being one of the prominent Color Field painters, Still’s hot bursts and crackly lines of vivid hues that conjure tears and gashes were distinct from say Rothko’s more simplified washes of color, or Newman’s thin lines. This can be seen in 1957-D-No. 1, a large work that recalls natural shapes and phenomena reminiscent of cave stalagmites, caverns, and other mysterious elements that lie just beneath the surface of our everyday conscious recognition. The relationships within Still’s compositional ingredients, of foreground and background, bring to mind life’s dance between light and dark – something Still loved expressing, a self-described “life and death merging in fearful union.”

Oil on canvas – Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950)

Artist: Jackson Pollock

Artwork description & Analysis: The piece is exemplary of Pollock’s famous “drip” works in which paint was poured, splattered, and applied by the artist in an extremely physical fashion from above to a canvas which lay on the ground. This process of expressing an internal emotional turbulence through gesture, line, texture, and composition represented a breakthrough for Pollock in his career and helped put the New York School of painters on the map. These paintings became the impetus for critic Rosenberg’s coining of the term Action Painting. And this unlikely combination of chance and control became tantamount to Abstract Expressionism’s evolution.

Enamel on canvas – The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

About author

Mabel Petty is a veteran journalist who has spent the last 20 years working with newspapers, magazines and websites covering marketing, business, technology, financial services and a variety of other topics.
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