As the name suggests, Abstract Expressionism comes from the ideas of Abstractism and Expressionism. Saying this is too reductive though, as Abstract Expressionism is much more!
Historical and artistic background
We can place Abstract Expressionism in a timeline going from the mid ’40s to the mid ’60s. For the first time, an important art movement was coming from the USA and not from Europe, even if the inspiration was all European. The advent of Abtract Expressionism had a major influence on the history of art: the centre of contemporary art moved from Paris to New York, that is now the main city for this field.
During the World War II, many artists moved from Europe to the US, and this explains why European trends were taken as an inspiration for New York-based artists at that time.
Those years were years of Cold War, and the US wanted to gain the supremacy over the rest of the world, even in terms of scientific discoveries, literary achievements and of course new cultural ideas. The rise of Abstract Expressionism was the perfect way to do it.
In 1951, a group of artists, later called the “Irascibles”, wrote to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art boycotting their exhibition called American Painting Today – 1950, claiming that it didn’t represent the true reality of the time: it didn’t take into consideration Abstract Expressionism. Those artists were Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Richard Pousette-Dart, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Ad Reinhardt, and many others. Those artists were standing out for the new American movement that would have changed art history!
- The war had left a painful sign in the culture of the entire world though, making it difficult for the artists to find a purpose in what they were doing. Who cares about a portrait when millions of people just got killed? This was the main reason why the only art possible was the one that didn’t depict anything particular: Abstractism.
- The American Artists wanted to do something more though: through abstraction they wanted to provoke emotions in the viewer, expressing some powerful feelings.
- Every artist had a different style, it is impossible to indicate similarities between them! This is similar to the Pop Art movement, where everyone was doing something very different: the artists were united by the purpose of their art.
- Because of the previous point, many minor movements developed inside the “umbrella-term” of Abstract Expressionism: Action Painting, Color Field, Surrealism, etc.
Jackson Pollock was a “damned soul”, he was addicted to alcohol since he was 15 and affected by bipolarism. This is the reason why he died so young, at 44 years old. Nonetheless, he produced many paintings!
Carl Gustav Jung, a psychoanalist, thought that every person had the same mind structures (he called them “archetypes”). We all experience the same things at a certain point of life, for example birth and death, and each of these aspects has a specific consequence in psychology. This had a big importance in Pollock’s work, especially in his first phase: an example of this is Birth (1941).
Of course Pollock is most famous for his dripping actions, with the canvas placed on the floor and the artist walking on it. In this case the action itself is even more important than the painting (this is why this particular movement is called Action Painting), because it is the expression of the mindstate of the artist and his impulses.
There are videos of the artist painting, and the experience watching those is very powerful: he seems in a trance, thinking only about how the paint will fall on the canvases, he is almost dancing a dance coming from his soul.
We spoke about Mark Rothko already, you can check the article out here! Mark Rothko has a completely different style, and he painted with the so-called “color-fields”, meaning that all his canvases are made of blocks of monochrome colors. Even the titles of his paintings are many times just descriptive, for example we talked about the one called Orange and yellow. But what does it mean? It is purely spiritual and meditative, and the different color fields seem to float on one another in a calm and peaceful way. Even a “chapel” was commissioned to him, with no religion and no label: it is called the Rothko Chapel and it is located in Houston, Texas. The canvases that are the protagonists of the chapel are black and purpleish, and they cover each side of the octagonal room. “They’re sort of a window to beyond,” explains the chapel’s attendant. “He [the artist] said the bright colors sort of stop your vision at the canvas, where dark colors go beyond. And definitely you’re looking at the beyond. You’re looking at the infinite.” We will certainly talk more about this wonderful creation!
Ellsworth Kelly was working with the color-fields as well, but he developed the style that will be later called “hard-edge painting”, with the colored areas well defined, clear shapes and plain and bright tones. He was an intermediate between the Abstract Expressionism and the Minimal Art, making a virtual bridge between the two movements.
Franz Kline was labeled as an action painter, just like Pollock, but his spontaneous works were not… spontaneous: he was making sketches and drawings before painting, studying his subjects very carefully. His iconic style is made of a clear, white background and thick black lines placed in an abstract way. In the painting called Mahoning, for example, the subject is a small city near to Pittsburg, Mahoning, that was famous for it mines and industrial labour. You cannot see anything related to this in the painting, but you can still imagine a correlation: there is something dramatic, you have the impression of something falling on the right, decading.
Other artists and contributors
Among the other artists, we have to mention Barnett Newman, even if his abstractism was more related to the Minimal Art than to the Abstract Expressionism. We talked about one of his works here.
The Abstract Expressionism influenced a lot, by imitation or by contrast, the following movements, for example Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme, Neo-Dada, or even the Performance Art, thanks to the Action Painting of Pollock (it was already a performance if you think about it). The Abstract Expressionism took out all the attention to the object and the figures, allowing the following artists to reflect on the subject a lot further.