Abstract Expressionism – A Timeless and Powerful Art Movement

A post-World War II movement, Abstract Expressionism originated in the 1940s and 1950s in the United States and was a genre driven by emotional expression, derived from the exposure and assimilation of European modernism. Gesture plays a dominant role in Abstract Expressionism, and line and spontaneity came to the fore. Abstract Expressionism was born when artists began to search for subjects that were both timeless and powerful.

Thus, they turned to a frankness of expression which they felt was best achieved through a lack of premeditation. The less the Abstract Expressionists anticipated, the more they felt they conveyed identities and their emotions appropriately.

Similar to how Surrealism popularized, Abstract Expressionists also placed some emphasis on engaging with their unconscious through psychic automatism. It adheres to a notion of “going with the flow” which allows them to gain the freedom of their mind and subconscious to project their art.

Abstract Expressionism has matured and evolved over the years into two major groups. The first was through what is called “action-painting”.

This was radicalized by Jackson Pollock, who dripped and poured paint onto raw canvases on the floor, destroying traditional ways of painting with brushes on stretched canvases set on easels. His works had no subject and blew his viewers away. Such dynamism-laden works could also be found in the studios of Willem De Kooning, Lee Krasner and Franz Kline, albeit laden with different aspects of their personal expressions.

The second is what are called “color field paintings”. It was a term that stuck after art critic Clement Greenberg characterized it, and painters in this group filled their canvases with unique colors. Artists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still were invested in how simple compositions of color on large surfaces could instill meditative states in viewers and sought to translate their own feelings into their works.

Abstract Expressionism was first invented in connection with Wassily Kandinsky and his work in 1919 in Germany. This was initially aimed at the German Expressionists of that time and the certain anti-figurative aesthetic that accompanied their works. Alfred Barr was the first American to use the term “abstract expressionism” in 1929, linking it to stylistic similarities with 20th-century Russian artists, particularly again with Wassily Kandinsky.

American art critic Robert Coates further popularized the term by associating it with works by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky.

While Kandinksy has been commonly cited as the pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, there are arguments that Swedish artist Hilma af Klint may in fact lay claim to this title after discovering it in 1906. Af Klint was the daughter of an admiral and was born and raised in a country that allowed women to study art long before other European countries like France, Germany or Italy.

Major Western Abstract Expressionist Artists

Hilma de Klint

Perhaps it was Klint’s reserve as a female artist or the insecurity of feeling too radical that caused her works to not be seen for the first time until 1986, even though she began to create his dynamically charged abstract paintings some 80 years ago.

She was convinced that the world was not ready to see her works, even setting conditions for them not to be shown until 20 years after her death. During these years, her contemporaries such as Kandinsky and Mondrian would exhibit widely, while she kept her works private.

Af Klint’s practice is driven by a deep spiritualism she draws from her practice as a medium; this parallel with the surrealist characteristic of achieving psychic automation and seeking to discover the unconscious in oneself is striking.

His first series, “The Paintings for the Temple,” produced between 1906 and 1915, adhered to this trajectory of thought, seeking to visualize and articulate mystical tendencies in daily life.

Wassily Kandinsky

A painter and theorist, Kandinsky is a household name and cannot be forgotten in the world of Abstract Expressionism. Born in Moscow, Kandinsky gave up teaching law at the age of 30 to enroll in the Munich Academy, although he was not initially admitted. Alongside af Klint’s spiritual trajectory, Kandinsky sought to create art that conveyed a universal sense of spirituality.

Kandinsky played with color and form, and the interrelated aesthetic experience they create together. Kandinsky saw himself as a prophet with a mission to use his art to convey universal human emotions and ideas, and believed that this was a mission for the betterment of society.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock has been described as the driving force behind the Abstract Expressionist movement. It radicalizes abstract styles and redefines the techniques of drawing and painting, allowing the viewer themselves to redefine what pictorial space means.

Pollock’s famous “drip paintings” represent one of the most original body of work of the century and changed the course of American art for good.

Most of his canvases were placed on the floor or against a wall before his painting process, rather than the traditional way of being attached to an easel. He then let the paint flow out of the paint cans. Instead of using a brush, he would create depth in his works using knives and sticks. His style is closely linked to the emotive and expressive themes of surrealism and avoids any point of clear emphasis.

Pollock’s works bore no relation to the size of his canvases at hand as he did not consider dimensions. His influence on American art is unparalleled, presenting a strong opposition to the European modernism that prevailed over the art world at the time, recreating new understandings of surface and touch.

Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning’s work, unlike that of Pollock, depicted distorted and abstract subjects. He also began with figurative painting before experimenting with abstraction and gestural painting. The similarities with regards to Abstract Expressionism lie in their robust movements in the creation of their works, evidenced by the energy of their strokes.

De Kooning not only aggressively added paint to his canvases, but also scraped them off as part of his process.

His work, “Woman I”, was made over an unusually long period, due to the time spent on preliminary studies and an obsession that led him to repaint the work several times. Throughout the work, frenzy is felt in his application of paint, as he successfully projects a “reverence and fear of the power of the feminine”.

Dutch American artist, de Kooning was born in Rotterdam and moved to the United States, later becoming an American citizen. He sought to redefine what a “finished” painting was, but often left his works with a dynamic sense of incompleteness, as if his subjects were still active, in motion and in and out of definition.

Courtesy of Artling

Christopher S. Washington