Abstract expressionism dramatically shifted the centre of the modern art world from Paris to New York. Drawing on the automatism ideas of the surrealists, abstract expressionist artists also took inspiration from futurism, Bauhaus, and crystal cubism and threw out figurative subjects entirely, as artists focused on ideas like expressing the feeling of things, the atmosphere, and of course their own emotions and feelings. It was an incredibly broad movement which is difficult to pin down, with artists like Rothko, Pollock, or Kandinsky producing very different types of original artworks, for very different reasons, but below are some of the key artists within the movement.
A pioneer of abstract works in western art, Kandinsky had always been fascinated by colour, studying art and working in his native Russia establishing the Museum of the Culture of Painting, and researching folk art and architectural decoration. He spent much time considering his ideas on art; the psychology and symbolism of colour, connections between art and music, and concepts of spirituality. His early work showed inspirations from fauvists and pointillists, and a movement towards colour without specific or set form. Moving between highly abstracted landscapes and completely abstract pieces he felt out his matured style, incorporating ideas of spirituality, prophecy, and biomorphic forms, publishing a number of books on artistic theory which would inspire other artists as much as his work.
Taking an early interest in socialism and politics, Rothko discovered an interest in art through a friend he visited at art school and enrolled in the Parsons New School for Design, studying under Max Weber who was a powerful voice for modern art. Rothko moved to New York and began exhibiting and socialising with other artists, gradually simplifying his style from figurative impressionistic art to biomorphic and abstract original artworks, which would eventually become simple fields of colour. Painted at a large scale so that they could envelope the viewer, creating an almost spiritual experience, his work is some of the most popularly recognised abstract expressionist work.
Jackson Pollock, the action abstract expressionist
One of the most well known names in the movement, Pollock was heavily influenced by Native American and Mexican art in his youth, learning to utilise paint pouring from a Mexican muralist. He began laying his canvasses on the floor to paint them so that he could move around them, pouring the paint from all sides of it, enabling his trademark technique. His work thrilled collectors, his energetic technique of application became widely known even in the general public, and even many critics admired his work, though some saw it as a meaningless explosion of energy. Computer analysis of his works after his death have shown many similarities between his work and fractals, with neuroscientists showing that viewers of his work feel the same stress-reducing response created by naturally occurring and computer generated fractals; Pollock himself once said, “I am nature.”
Like many other abstract expressionists Mondrian’s work evolved gradually from traditional figurative paintings, to an increasingly abstract style; but Mondrian went further than most, with his matured style exploring only the most simple geometric shapes. He believed that art should transcend reality, and could best do so abandoning reality entirely; to him, abstract art was spiritual. Looking for a universality between art and spirituality he evolved his neoplasticism style by deciding to limit himself to the three primary colours and the two basic directions; up/down and left/right, creating simple grids with colour fields arranged in the grid squares. His work would come to define modern art to many people, impacting on design, architecture, and fashion as well as minimalism and colour field painting.
Abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning
Born in the Netherlands, de Kooning’s first job was as an apprentice for a commercial artist, stowing away to the US where he began painting houses before switching to being an artist and socialising with the modern art scene in New York. His earliest work was very abstract, using biomorphic shapes and strong colours, evolving to monochromes, and then a range of works called the Woman series, which depicted women, but grew inscreasingly abstract, until Woman VI could be recognised as an abstract expressionist work, and alongside Jackson Pollock’s work, the movement began in earnest.