Abstract Expressionism: Art History 101 Basics

Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). Convergence, 1952. Oil on canvas. 93 1/2 x 155 in. (237.5 x 393.7 cm). Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1956. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y.
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Abstract Expressionism, also known as Action Painting or Color Field Painting, exploded onto the art scene after World War II with its characteristic messiness and extremely energetic applications of paint. 

Abstract Expressionism is also referred to as gestural abstraction because its brush strokes 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 referred to this movement as Action Painting.

Many modern-day art historians believe that his emphasis on action leaves out another side of Abstract Expressionism: control vs. chance. Historians posit that 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."

Despite the paintings' apparent lack of cohesion to the uneducated eye, these artists cultivated the interplay of skill and unplanned occurrences to determine the painting's final outcome.

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.

Rather than following the tamer brush applied methods from the Old World, these young bohemians invented new ways to apply paint in a dramatic and experimental manner.

New Ways of Experimenting with Art

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) used 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.

Abstract Expressionism can be divided into two tendencies: Action painting, which included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Tobey, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, among many, many others;  and Color Field Painting, which included such artists as Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Adolph Gottlieb.

The Expressionism 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.

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) is another hallmark of this style of art. Sometimes gestural "writing" is incorporated into the work, often in a loosely calligraphic manner.

In the case of Color Field artists, the picture plane is carefully filled with zones of color that create tension between the shapes and hues.

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Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Abstract Expressionism: Art History 101 Basics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/abstract-expressionism-art-history-183313. Gersh-Nesic, Beth. (2020, August 26). Abstract Expressionism: Art History 101 Basics. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/abstract-expressionism-art-history-183313 Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Abstract Expressionism: Art History 101 Basics." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/abstract-expressionism-art-history-183313 (accessed March 28, 2023).