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Abstract Expressionism - Art History 101 Basics

Mid-1940s-Present

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© 2009 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; used with permission

Franz Kline (American, 1910-1962). Mahoning, 1956. Oil and paper collage on canvas. 80 x 100 in. (203.2 x 254 cm). Purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

© 2009 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Abstract Expressionism or "AbEx" (a.k.a. Action Painting or Color Field Painting; a.k.a. The New York School) exploded onto the art scene after World War II with its characteristic messiness and extremely energetic applications of paint. To the contemporary audience, the whole enterprise seemed like youthful antagonism--hardly worthy of the name "art." (That's what the critics said about Impressionism too.)

Abstract Expressionism is also referred to as Gestural Abstraction, because its brush stokes revealed the artist's process. This process is the subject of the art itself. As Harold Rosenberg explained: the work of art becomes an "event." For this reason, he dubbed this movement Action Painting in 1952. But today art historians feel that his emphasis on "action" leaves out another side of Abstract Expressionism: control vs. chance. Therefore, we must acknowledge the foundation of Abstract Expressionism comes from three major sources: Kandinsky's abstraction, the Dadaist's reliance on chance, and the Surrealist's endorsement of Freudian theory that embraces the relevance of dreams, sexual drives (libido) and the authenticity of ego (unfiltered self-centeredness, known as narcissism), which this art expresses through "action."

Although at first glance it seems that your Kindergartner can do it, trust me: these artists cultivate the interplay of skill and unplanned occurrences to determine the painting's final outcome. So, if you feel that you are a budding Jackson Pollock, may I suggest experimenting outside on the lawn or in your garage--far from precious possessions. Pollock used an empty barn in East Hampton which is now the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center.

Most of the Abstract Expressionists lived in New York and met at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. Therefore the movement is also called The New York School. A good number of the artists met through the Depression era WPA (Works Progress/Project Administration), a government program that paid artists to paint murals in government buildings. Others met through Hans Hoffman, the master of the "push-pull" school of Cubism, who came from Germany in the early 1930s to Berkeley and then New York to serve as the guru of abstraction. He taught at the Art Students League and then opened his own school.

But rather than follow the tame brush applied methods from the Old World, these young bohemians invented new ways to apply paint in a dramatic and experimental manner. Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) became known as "Jack the Dripper" because of his drip-and-spatter technique that fell upon a canvas laid out horizontally on the floor. Willem de Kooning (1904-1907) swashbuckled with loaded brushes and garish colors that seemed to collide rather than settle down into co-existence. Mark Tobey (1890-1976) "wrote" his painted marks, as if he were inventing an unintelligible alphabet for an exotic language that no one knew or would ever bother to learn. His work was based on his study of Chinese calligraphy and brush painting, as well as Buddhism.

The key to understanding Abstract Expressionism is to understand the concept of "deep" in 1950s slang. "Deep" meant not decorative, not facile (superficial) and not insincere. Abstract Expressionists strove to uncover their most personal feelings directly through making art, and thereby achieve some transformation--or, if possible, some personal redemption.

Therefore, Abstract Expressionism's physicality comes from explorations of inner turmoil and anxiety. Some of this distress came from exposure to the disturbing reports of horrors and pain endured during World War II. Some of the distress came from the threat of a nuclear holocaust as the Cold War heated up. Their unbridled approach to making art mirrored James Dean (1931-1955) in Rebel Without a Cause, contemporary jazz and the free verse of the Beat Generation poets, such as Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Gary Snyder (born 1930). For these aspiring artists, noncompliance with any art rules to date separated them from the sins of their parents, who had unleashed untold madness into the world of their youth. It was their revenge.

Abstract Expressionism can be divided into two tendencies: Action Painting (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Tobey, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, among many, many others) and Color Field Painting (Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Adolph Gottlieb and so forth).

How Long Has Abstract Expressionism Been a Movement?

Abstract Expressionism evolved through the work of each individual artist. Generally speaking, each artist arrived at this free-wheeling style by the end of the 1940s and continued in the same manner to the end of his or her life. The style has remained alive well into the current century through its youngest practitioners.

What Are the Key Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism?

  • Unconventional application of paint, usually without a recognizable subject (de Kooning's Woman series is an exception) that tends toward amorphous shapes in brilliant colors.
  • Dripping, smearing, slathering, and flinging lots of paint on to the canvas (often an unprimed canvas).
  • Sometimes gestural "writing" in a loosely calligraphic manner.
  • In the case of Color Field artists: carefully filling the picture plane with zones of color that create tension between the shapes and hues.

Suggested Reading

Anfam, David. Abstract Expressionism
New York & London: Thames and Hudson, 1990

Karmel, Pepe, et al. New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Collection
New York: Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 2009

Kleeblatt, Norman, et al. Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008

Sandler, Irving. Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation
Lenox: Hard Press, 2009

Sandler, Irving. The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors from the Fifties
New York: Harper and Row, 1978

Sandler, Irving. The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism
New York: Praeger, 1970
 
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