Emerging in the 1940s and 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the first truly American movement to impact internationally on the art world, shifting New York to the new epicentre from Paris. Taking inspiration from the spontaneous and subconscious creative ideals within Surrealism, the movement was also informed by the intense emotions of German Expressionism, and the avoidance of figurative art as explored by Abstract, Futurist, and Bauhaus artists.
In practice, the artists of the movement created artworks often wildly at contrast with each other, dividing them loosely into two major fields; the energetic chaos of action paintings by artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and the often calm and meditative colour fields of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clifford Still. Though these approaches were incredibly different, they were united in their underlying aim; to create abstract original artworks which also expressed and provoked emotions and feelings.
The Abstract Expressionists committed to producing artworks which expressed their self; their emotions, thoughts, fears, and subconscious, which often sat in a world of politicised post-war traumas and anxieties. There was also a perspective within the movement on creating art as a battle between ordered, planned expression, and the chaotic urges of the subconscious mind. It was a movement of contrasts, at one time uniquely American, but expressing a politics and nihilism triggered by the closeness of war.
Jackson Pollock, action painting, and revolutionising contemporary art
Many of the foundational concepts of Abstract Expressionism were influenced by European artists relocating to the US to escape the war, as well as the work of some of those who stayed behind. Matisse, Picasso, Miro, Surrealism, Cubism, and Fauvism were all absorbed and began to affect the work of artists like Gorky, de Kooning, and Pollock.
One of the first big names of the movement, Jackson Pollock’s action painting was exciting in itself, but his influence was most strongly felt in the way he approached making a painting. He threw away the artist’s easel and stretched canvasses on the floor so they could be attacked from all sides, with paint dripped, thrown and brushed with physicality to match from the artists himself. Pollock sent yet more signs of Modern Art liberation from tradition to find that greater truth and it filtered on into movements like Fluxus, Neo-Dada, and Conceptual Art.
There were many other action painters, but Pollock’s re-thinking of art as being much more about the process of committing a work to canvas, or sculpture, or words, was what it was really all about, with the painting more of a documentation of the process.
Rothko and the colour field Modern Artists
Often feeling like the polar opposite of action painting, colour fields were equally abstract and expressionist, and some artists, like Hofmann and Motherwell, can be described as artists working in both styles, but colour fields had a focus on removing the superfluous, and finding expression in much more simple forms. The psychology of colour became more important than ever before, displayed in large, flat shapes, sometimes on canvasses shaped specially for each individual piece; the integrity of the picture plain was essential.
Whilst Mark Rothko was far from the only colour field artist, he has become the most recognisable name within the movement, creating simple rectangular blocks of colour, built up over hundreds of layers of paint creating a softness to his work which engulfs the viewer. His work creates an almost religious atmosphere like that of a church, and any art gallery with his work hung will often find viewers stood gazing into the canvas far longer than those deep in details.
As the 1950s turned to the 1960s Abstract Expressionism had begun to fade into new movements; Pop Art, Minimalism, and Neo-Expressionism all took inspiration from it, whilst Hard-Edge Painting reacted against it. It never truly died though, many artists continued with the style, it can still be found in Abstract styles today, and it’s impact in elevating New York, and American art, to the peak of the art world has never gone away.