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Abstract Expressionism

We love expressionistic artwork. Abstract Expressionism is a type of painting that emerged in New York in the late 1940s and continued to dominate the American art scene through the 1950s. Abstract Expressionists usually worked on large canvases and emphasized the sensuousness of paint.

It covered a variety of painting styles, but all its practitioners conveyed a strong emotional content. It is a term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and 1950s.

Drip Technique used in Abstract Expressionism
Paul Jackson Pollock was an American painter and a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement. He was widely noticed for his “drip technique” of pouring or splashing liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface, enabling him to view and paint his canvases from all angles.

The term Abstract Expressionism was first used in connection with modern American painters in 1946 by Robert Coates, art critic of The New Yorker, but it had also been applied to the work of Wassily Kandinsky in the 1920s. By the 1950s the term was in common currency, even though some Abstract Expressionists, such as Willem de Kooning, retained figurative elements in their work.

What is the idea of Abstract Expressionism?

The Surrealists were a major influence on the Abstract Expressionists. Their ideas of unleashing the power of the unconscious and painting automatically were adopted by the Abstract Expressionists – as was biomorphism, a style of painting based on non-geometric shapes and motifs that evoke living things. Most of the Abstract Expressionists – including its two best-known artists, Pollock and Rothko – began painting in a biomorphic style in the 1940s.

Abstract Expressionism was also a response to post-war American society. In a conservative, and increasingly homogenized culture, artists felt a need to communicate their innermost feelings and experiences. In doing so, they created the first American art movement to achieve worldwide influence.

Abstract Expressionists can broadly be divided into two groups. The Action painters, a term coined by the critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952, included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline. Their paintings are full of drama, with the paint applied urgently and passionately. The Colour Field painters, championed by critic Clement Greenberg, include Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. Their paintings are quieter and emphasize the emotional force of color.

Irregular and painterly rectangular regions of color of Mark Rothko's work.
Mark Rothko, an American abstract painter, is best known for his color field paintings that depicted irregular and painterly rectangular regions of color.

Interpretations of Abstract Expressionist Art

Action Painting

In Action painting, the “act’ of painting becomes the content of the work – so the image reflects the raw emotions held by the artist while creating it. Action painters poured, dripped, and spattered paint on to the canvas. Hans Hoffman was among the first to do this, but Pollock took the technique to its logical conclusion – he abandoned the restrictions of brushes and upright easels to create images that he described as “energy and motion made visible”. These pictures, full of restlessness and flux, with no one part of the picture more important than another, were said to be “all-over” in style.

Rosenberg summed up Action painting: “What was to go on canvas was not a picture but an event”. Pollock’s work, in particular, looked forward to the performance art and happenings of the 1960s. Look at a Pollock and you have a record of his “performance”.

Action painting is a style often used among Abstract Expressionist
Action painting, sometimes called “gestural abstraction”, is a style of painting in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas.

Color Field painting

Where Action painting was bold and assertive, Color Field painting was contemplative and carefully constructed. The works consist of large expanses of color, often without strong contrasts of tone or obvious focal points.

Many Color Field paintings were intended to create transcendental feelings of awe and wonder. Newman said his art was “religious” and concerned with the “sublime”. Rothko said his work was about “the basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom”. The huge size of many of these paintings does seem to overwhelm the viewer, inducing a feeling of isolation in a limitless world.

If Action painting was the result of a heightened state of consciousness on the part of the painter, Color Field painting was intended to create a heightened state of consciousness on the part of the viewer.

Color Field painting is about planned composition.
Color Field was all about the rational, calm and planned composition. Color Field painting was intended to create a heightened state of consciousness on the part of the viewer.

Wall Art Inspirations

Art28 curated collections include some of the abstract expressionist art work by emerging artists from Asia and Oceania. Some artworks are modern remakes of the best abstract expressionists work in history. Check out our collections below.

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