‘Those lines and bold strokes are nothing but the artist’, is the
answer you are most likely to get if you ever wonder what abstract
expressionism is all about.
expressionism was a form of painting that dominated the art scene in
the United States (US) in the late 1940s and 1950s. It reached its
peak in the 1960s.
All the abstract expressionists laid emphasis on the surface
qualities of their pictures. Their works glorified the act of
painting itself. Paint was used by the artists in a very bold,
colorful way. Their work emphasized the importance of the physical
act of painting.
As the name suggests, the themes were mainly abstract with no
semblance to any known figure or form. The paintings would suggest a
meaning to the viewer, depending upon the way he looked at it. A few
artists, however, retained some figurative traces in their work.
Most leading abstract artists were based in New York. So much so that a group of
these artists is known as the New York School. Before this form of painting
evolved, it was only Paris that had been synonymous with art.
abstract expressionists, however, carved a niche for New York in the world of
art, and New York has held on to it ever since.
During World War II, many European surrealists took refuge in the US. Their work
inspired US artists and the result was the unbridled use of paint as a medium of
expression, unfettered by figurative guidelines.
Two very famous abstract expressionists were Jackson Pollock and Willem de
Kooning. They are regarded as the leaders of this movement.
Pollock enjoyed recognition for his explosive action paintings. His technique
was to apply varied hues of paint with energetic movements on the canvas.
Dribbling paint on the canvas and even splashing paint on his canvas resulted in
breathtaking effects that brought him fame. Not all abstractionists’ paintings
were like this though. Paintings by Rothko were very serene and contemplative
and used broad areas of color.
Other notable abstract expressionists were Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip
Guston, Clyfford Still, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Mark
Rothko and Arshile Gorky.
method – action painting
Jackson Pollock, considered the pioneer of abstract expressionism, had a
unique style of painting. Often he would fasten his canvas to the floor
and then proceed to paint it. He was the first to introduce the drip
method. Dripping and hurling paints over his canvas was combined with
even driving a bicycle over it, to get the effect he wanted. He would
sometimes attack his canvas with knives and trowels to achieve the exact
effect that he desired. His characteristic style was to create complex
networks of swirling interwoven lines. Despite all these seemingly
aggressive methods he employed, the resultant effect was one of delicacy
The term ‘action painting’ was coined by US art critic Harold
Rosenberg in 1952, probably inspired by all the expressive physical
action that went into the creation of a painting.
Abstract expressionism inspired many other art forms. Its expressively textured
surfaces inspired sculptors and other painters.
Jackson Pollock at work
type of painting called the color field painting came into being, inspired by
abstract expressionism. Also inspired was Minimalism, a totally different way of
thinking, which shunned the colorful overtones of abstract expressionism and
used subtle tones and expressions to convey its message.