• Abstract Expressionism: A Movement in Modern Art

Abstract Expressionism: A Movement In Art

During the 1950’s a group of artists emerged that combined Expressionism and Abstraction into a new method or movement in art. This was known as Abstract Expressionism or the New York School. The key artists who where grouped into this movement are:

  • Franz Kline,
  • Jackson Pollock,
  • Helen Frankenthaler,
  • Clyfford Still,
  • Mark Rothko,
  • Robert Motherwell,
  • Lee Krasner,
  • Willem de Kooning,
  • Ad Reinhardt,
  • Barnett Newman,
  • Arshile Gorky,
  • Elaine de Kooning

Abstract expressionism drew inspiration from their energetic art featuring emotional content, spontaneous gestures, and often painting on a monumental size.

Artist Focus: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko

I aim to highlight their individual, yet overall, style and method of painting using their personal history and influences in life to understand how their art developed.

All these artists were linked by their methods, creating a common way to produce what was then viewed as groundbreaking art. Within this essay I will focus on three artists:

Above: A photograph of the members of the movement Including: Pollock, Krasner, Rothko and de Kooning

Around the time the movement Abstract Expressionism developed, huge social changes were felt and reflected in the art world, often having a direct impact on their work. The largest impact on the persona of the practicing artists during the 1950’s was the Second World War. Many of who had fled Europe for safety in America, others had heard stories of the suffering of the people of Europe and felt the direct impact due to bombings within their country. Unlike the First World War, advances in technology meant thousands of the world population were affected and experienced shortages of food and supplies.

These direct links to Europe meant many of the key artists within this movement where heavily influenced by European artists, such as Picasso and Dali. Other movements such as Surrealism and Cubism directly influenced many of the Abstract Expressionist artists, allowing them to draw methods into their own original artwork.

An event which linked many of the famous Abstract Expressionists together was a large project, called ‘The Federal Arts Project’ (FAP). The US Government paid artists a low weekly income to produce murals and paintings. This allowed artists with no income to focus on their art. This project, despite its restrictions on the style and subject matter of the pieces commissioned, gave them credibility and status. Once established the artists on the project could then break away and begin to create unique work.

Two styles of painting were developed during this movement, the first popularly known as ‘Action Painting’ and the second was termed ‘Colour Field Painting’. A way to define each method would be to use examples of two artists, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

It could be argued that Jackson Pollock was the key figure in developing ‘Action Painting’, a technique which involved dropping or splashing paint onto the canvas, often turning the canvas, allowing the artists to work from all angles of the piece. Using a meat baster, piece of wood or trowel, the paint would be splashed onto the canvas, allowing gravity to influence the place the paint fell. This gave the artists a great deal of freedom and spontaneity in their art. The contrast is the method of ‘Colour Field’ painting.

This style is opposite to ‘Action Painting’, allowing the artists to place colour and shapes in a calculated manner, controlling the position and mixing of the paint. An excellent description of this method is that it is a “softer calmer technique.” The images above allow you to really see the differences contained within the same movement. Another artist within this group is Willem de Kooning, an artist who almost stands apart yet linking Rothko and Pollock together with his style of painting.

Willem de Kooning: ‘Asheville’ (1948)

Mark Rothko:

Mark Rothko, originally named Marcus Rothowitz, was born in 1903, into a Jewish family in the Lithuanian town of Dvinsk. Rothko was brought up in an extremely strict and traditional environment. He grew up during the Jewish persecution and attacks in Russia, and this fear stayed with him for the rest of his life. After moving to America, Rothko was involved with the Federal Arts Project, where he met a number of his peers. He described himself as a self-taught artist despite the fact he was trained at The Arts Students League in New York for two years. In 1938, he became a citizen of the United States, changing his name to a more “American sounding” Mark Rothko. His techniques of colour fields are the main characterisation of his work utilising colours to convey subject matter and mood in his work.

This piece could be divided up into areas, due to his use of colour dividing it into sections. His work allows your own interpretation to be used in understanding the paintings. Rothko’s work has often been criticised in the past for “apparent blankness” which is “supposed to show contemporary art’s emptiness.” Such criticism, I feel reduces Rothko’s work to an empty shell, almost taking away the meaning of his work and aims. Suffering many years of depression, he often felt very sensitive to how others viewed his work and the journey it took them. He articulately illustrated this by saying:

“If a viewer was sensitive and took time to look at the painting properly then it would ‘live’. If a viewer was unsympathetic or not sensitive then the painting would just appear to be meaningless and ‘dead’.”

Jackson Pollock:

The second painter within the movement is the contrasting Jackson Pollock who was born in 1912, in Wyoming, United States. Aged 14, he began his life long battle with alcohol. Pollock trained at a Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles for a number of years. Later he also worked on the Federal Arts Project, but his mood swings, alcoholism and perfectionism led to an emotional breakdown and many years of artistic blocks. Picasso, Native American and Mexican artists heavily influenced his work, developing new styles throughout his career. Pollock became famously known, and frequently criticised, for his ‘Action Painting’ technique and became known as ‘Jack the Dripper’ in The Times.

Jackson Pollock: ‘Ocean Greyness’ (1953)

The key feature of the two artists highlighted thus far is their method of incorporating their inner emotions into abstract forms, thus creating such highly charged pieces. The Pollock piece above is a visual representation of his swirling and ever changing mood. With the use of a piece of wood or meat baster he would throw or drop paint from above, creating a sense of movement expressing the way the piece had been created. Such movement is the key feature I have found when viewing a Pollock piece. The movement that was also shown in Rothko’s piece previously, could almost represent the feedback loop of negative emotions that seem to have haunted Pollock.

Willem de Kooning:

The final artist I will discuss is Willem de Kooning. Born 1904 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, his parents were divorced and he lived with his mother who it is suspected abused him mentally and physically. Kooning was known in his younger days as “the handsome Dutch-man,” an interesting description when we see that many of his paintings included the female form possibly reflecting his exploration of his own sexuality. Kooning himself was quoted as thinking “…the idea of a palette rather silly” which illustrates his method of painting, mixing on the actual canvas.

The quote below epitomises his work:

“I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and colour. I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it – drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, and my ideas about space. Through your eyes, it again becomes an emotion or idea.” – Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning: ‘Evacuation’ (1950)

He uses angular lines to direct your eye; portraying the feeling of struggle, movement and human form. Interesting use of light and dark paint allows the feeling of depth to be implied, enabling us to see individual figures yet still permitting them to subtly blend into each other. This is an interesting piece that shows de Kooning’s individual style, yet it still illustrates his links to other artists. A linking influence on the work of de Kooning and Pollock is Picasso, who was still practising at this time, and other Cubist artists; both demonstrating throughout their artwork their exploration of Cubist mythology and abstract images.

So far the individual styles have been discussed in the context of history and paintings, but not the movement as a whole. Abstract Expressionism allows us to see how such a movement can develop into a monumentally important period in art history, in essence developing into a canon of art. The opinion on who led the movement or was the key figure is still being formed to this day, with Jackson Pollock arguably in the lead having recently been highlighted in the film ‘Pollock’ (2000). An interesting opinion is that the artists “...exploit the deeper levels of our psychology and social experiences…” which suggests that such art is in fact successful only as most of us can relate to the emotions conveyed in the art. This argument is developed further, by contradicting the theory or ideas of the Abstract Expressionist artists, by saying that:

“All the models are inclined to mistake actual themes- dynamism, chaos, space, traces of human presence- for somehow involuntary or detrimental eruptions.” (From Tom Wolfe’s 1975 satire ‘The Painted Word’.)

Really this suggests that in fact the artists didn’t work directly from the image within their mind, implying that their art was more calculated that what they claimed it to be, even planned. The strong link that was claimed to Surrealism and Freud within Abstract Expressionism could be disputed as they were working from their conscious mind, not from their sub-conscious mind. The idea was similar but not the same. After researching I also found that in fact Jackson Pollock’s vast therapeutic and supporting sketches gave him the scope to plan his work. After my own exploration of such a method of paintings, I find that their art gave them certain freedom due to the energetic method of applying paint and other medium and abstract shapes. These are illustrated in examples of other artists within the movement.

The overall opinion I have formed is like the two sides of a coin. Firstly, I feel that you cannot simply discount their abilities as I did when I first viewed Rothko’s work. The fact will always remain that this group of artists channeled their inner feelings into their art, to which I feel is the essence of why I paint. Allowing myself to travel on a journey when creating any piece of art certainly allows me to develop and create high quality work. The second side to this movement is its theory of random or spontaneous creation. Every artist forms an image in his or her minds eye, taking paintings away from the sub-conscious and drawing on the conscious area of their mind. If we look at where art traveled after this, we can name an artist such as Frank Stella, who was part of Minimalism, influenced by his peers but at the same time rebelling against the ebb and flow of the Abstract Expressionist movement. So I can ask, is this a movement in art? The answer is certainly an emphatic yes. The question of the impact of the Abstract Expressionist art certainly has been outlined. I feel that such art should never be discounted too quickly as it certainly was a move towards abstraction and contemporary art, as we know it.


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