Discover the innovative tecniques of Abstract Expressionist painters
Abstract Expressionism is a term applied to a movement in American painting that flourished in New York City after World War II, sometimes referred to as the New York School or, more narrowly, as action painting. The varied work produced by the Abstract Expressionists resists definition as a cohesive style; instead, these artists shared an interest in using abstraction to convey strong emotional or expressive content.
Abstract Expressionism had a great impact on both the American and European art scenes during the 1950s. Indeed, the movement marked the shift of the creative centre of modern painting from Paris to New York City in the postwar decades. In the course of the 1950s, the movement’s younger followers increasingly followed the lead of the colour-field painters and, by 1960, its participants had generally drifted away from the highly charged expressiveness of the Action painters.
The early Abstract Expressionists had two notable forerunners: Arshile Gorky, who painted suggestive biomorphic shapes using a free, delicately linear, and liquid paint application; and Hans Hofmann, who used dynamic and strongly textured brushwork in abstract but conventionally composed works. Another important influence on nascent Abstract Expressionism was the arrival on American shores in the late 1930s and early ’40s of a host of Surrealists and other important European avant-garde artists who were fleeing Nazi-dominated Europe. Such artists greatly stimulated the native New York City painters and gave them a more intimate view of the vanguard of European painting. The Abstract Expressionist movement itself is generally regarded as having begun with the paintings done by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
Technically, an important predecessor is surrealism, with its emphasis on spontaneous, automatic, or subconscious creation. Jackson Pollock’s dripping paint onto a canvas laid on the floor is a technique that has its roots in the work of André Masson, Max Ernst, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The newer research tends to put the exile-surrealist Wolfgang Paalen in the position of the artist and theoretician who fostered the theory of the viewer-dependent possibility space through his paintings and his magazine DYN. Paalen considered ideas of quantum mechanics, as well as idiosyncratic interpretations of the totemic vision and the spatial structure of native-Indian painting from British Columbia and prepared the ground for the new spatial vision of the young American abstracts. His long essay Totem Art (1943) had considerable influence on such artists as Martha Graham, Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.  Around 1944 Barnett Newman tried to explain America’s newest art movement and included a list of “the men in the new movement.” Paalen is mentioned twice; other artists mentioned are Gottlieb, Rothko, Pollock, Hofmann, Baziotes, Gorky and others. Motherwell is mentioned with a question mark.  Another important early manifestation of what came to be abstract expressionism is the work of American Northwest artist Mark Tobey, especially his “white writing” canvases, which, though generally not large in scale, anticipate the “all-over” look of Pollock’s drip paintings.
The movement’s name is derived from the combination of the emotional intensity and self-denial of the German Expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of the European abstract schools such as Futurism, the Bauhaus, and Synthetic Cubism. Additionally, it has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, nihilistic.  In practice, the term is applied to any number of artists working (mostly) in New York who had quite different styles, and even to work that is neither especially abstract nor expressionist. California abstract expressionist Jay Meuser, who typically painted in the non-objective style, wrote about his painting Mare Nostrum, “It is far better to capture the glorious spirit of the sea than to paint all of its tiny ripples.” Pollock’s energetic “action paintings”, with their “busy” feel, are different, both technically and aesthetically, from the violent and grotesque Women series of Willem de Kooning’s figurative paintings and the rectangles of color in Mark Rothko’s Color Field paintings (which are not what would usually be called expressionist, and which Rothko denied were abstract). Yet all four artists are classified as abstract expressionists.
The abstract expressionists were mostly based in New York City, and also became known as the New York school. The name evokes their aim to make art that while abstract was also expressive or emotional in its effect. They were inspired by the surrealist idea that art should come from the unconscious mind, and by the automatism of artist Joan Miró.
Abstract expressionism is the 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. It is often characterised by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity
Key artists: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Harold Shapinsky, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Cy Twombly, Ann Ryan, Ad Reinhardt
Key dates: 1940s and 1950s