Abstract Expressionism burst into life in the 1940s and was a form of modern art that started in New York.

It stemmed from the Surrealist art movement (Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Rene Magritte) and grew out of the harsh reality of living during the Great Depression and World War II. Faced with the increased risk of the denial of freedom of expression and the threat of war on the human race, artists were compelled to create art that stood up to these issues.

Rather than producing deliberately recognisable images though, artists explored how they could express emotions and feelings in more abstract ways. One way to appreciate what the artist is trying to achieve is not by reasoning or overanalysing what you see in front of you but to consider the overall impression of what they have produced and how it makes you feel.

Take Jackson Pollock, he grew tired of the conventional ways of creating an image and gained much interest by his novel ways to apply paint to canvas. Best known for his ‘drip’ paintings, he decided to place his canvases on the floor and walk around and within them, dripping, pouring and throwing on paint to create an overall expression of spontaneity and impulsiveness.

about expressionism
Jackson pollock (1912-1956)
Number 1A (1948)
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Let’s not dismiss the cleverness of his paintings though. Pollock was exploring the simplicity of how a child might draw, with no inhibitions and seemingly random scrawls and dashes of colour. He also achieved a complexity to the work, take a good look at the multiple layers of paint he added that flow in and around each other. He also managed to do this without leaving a trace of his footsteps or handprints.

By creating these images on such a large scale he achieved not only something that a child could not begin to consider but also the workings of his mind. Pollock said that ‘every good painter paints what he is’ and if that’s the case, then we can see that he was a tortured soul who swung from clarity and sensitivity to confusion and despair. And this was certainly true of this alcoholic, depressed painter!

Mark Rothko was a key artist for abstract expressionism. He wanted to express human emotions and anxieties by using soft-edged blocks of colour and large scale murals.

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Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Untitled (Orange and Yellow) 1956

about expressionism
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Light red over black 1957 
Tate Collection

In these pictures, like many of his images, he deliberately leaves them unframed. The paint is applied thinly and the blocks of colour blend in to each other and the subtle colours contrast, giving off the impression that they’re almost hovering over one another. Rothko said that he wanted his images to be perceived as a ‘presence’ rather than a tangible object. So next time you see a Rothko, look at the overall image rather than trying to understand how to make sense of it all. Get close up, relax and wait until the mural completely takes over your field of vision. Then consider how you feel and the emotions that come to you.

Other key painters from this time include Franz Kline who produced a series of images using black paint on white canvas. He called them ‘White forms’, which tells us to focus more on the blank spaces than the black strokes they’re surrounded by.

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Franz Kline (1910 -1962)
Mahoning, 1956 
Oil and paper collage on canvas. 
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
copyright The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society, New York

about expressionism
Franz Kline in front of one of his paintings

Willem de Kooning successfully created a link between complete abstract art and figurative painting. This is demonstrated in one of his most successful pieces, ‘Woman I’. He uses bold colours and interweaving brushwork to create a strong but erratic and aggressive image.

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Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Woman 1
Oil on canvas
Copyright 2010 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists

Abstract expressionist Arshile Gorky was influenced from the shapes and forms in nature and landscapes. He translated these onto canvas with a ‘poetic’ flowing style, much like his predecessor Miro who created ‘musical’ paintings (see our description on on Modern Art for more information on this painter). Like many of his fellow Abstract Expressionists, he committed suicide after a series of unfortunate events.

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Arshile Gorky (1904-1948)
Water of the Flowery Mill. 1944
Metropolitan Museum, NY.

Abstract Expressionist works are appreciated best when you don’t try to reason or overanalyse them.

Abstract Expressionism is bold and assertive but it’s more than that. The artists invite you to be contemplate and question your emotions too.

For online source of information on abstract expressionism and related works check out these links: - The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The home to abstract expressionism. This site allows you to navigate around it’s collection with simple summaries for each painting too.

*For more information on this subject check out E H Gombrich’s definitive book, The Story of Art
*A.R.T.: A no-nonsense guide to art and artists.

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