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Important Ideas that Changed Art Forever – Abstract Expressionism

Jackson Pollock - Autumn

What is Abstract Expressionism?

Abstract Expressionism is a form of painting that championed individual self-expression as the central driving force for creating a work of art. It developed in the 1940’s and 1950’s in the US, and is easily recognisable for its large-scale canvases and gestural brushwork.

In most examples, the artworks were created by wildly emotive actions, with the representation of a certain mood or emotional state as the chief aim of the artist. Most Abstract Expressionist Artworks contained no recognisable subject matter, so the emotional mood was, in itself, the content of the work. Religious or mythic ideas were also explored in some cases. It was also seen as an exploration of sorts, each artwork became a method and a language to examine, describe or uncover a certain emotion.

The Movement can be divided into two subdivisions: the action painters, such as Pollock and De Kooning, and the painters that worked with expansive areas of colour and form like Rothko and Newman.

The action painters furiously worked and re-worked their canvases, building up many layers of passionately applied colour and marks. Pollock described this process in the following way: ‘The modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.’

The second grouping of artists chose to use simple palettes and huge areas of colour, filling their canvases with powerful, minimal compositions. These paintings are much calmer, but no less evocative than the action painters. From this branch of Abstract Expressionism, colour field painting developed, which turned away from including any mythical or religious ideas and feelings within the work. This subsequent movement also became known as post painterly abstraction.

Mark Rothko - No14 - Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism and scale

One characteristic trait of many Abstract Expressionist artists was that they worked on a grand scale. Critics were outspoken in their beliefs that this came from delusions of grandeur and self-importance, which in some cases may have had some truth to it, but this was done generally to increase the power of the impact of the artwork. In the case of Rothko, he wanted to evoke powerful and meditative ideas and experiences through his paintings. He stated:

‘I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them however is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereotypical view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it.’

To enable the viewer to experience his work without preconception and draw the maximum interpretation, Rothko stopped framing and naming his work. From then on, he only referred to each piece by a number. He felt this was the only way to engage the audience in a way that would reflect the message he was trying to portray.

Painting in new ways

Jackson Pollock often laid his canvases on the floor, and dripped and flung the paint across his compositions. This was an important moment in the long and rich history of painting. When the paintings dried, and were hung on gallery walls, the movement of the artist and the physical process of painting could be clearly seen and understood. The ‘act’ of painting because an incredibly important part of each artwork, and lines and marks that stretched across entire canvases, very simply represented basic and profound instances of subjective human expression. In his own words, he claimed:

‘On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.’

This concept opened painting up into new realms. The importance of the action of the artist during the creation of an artwork (the artist being ‘in’ the painting) was also heavily influential for performance art, as it focused attention onto what they did, and how that resulted in an artwork.

Political Dimensions

Although many of the Abstract Expressionist artists were outspoken critics of the US government, the movement later became funded and popularized in part by the C.I.A. With the tense political atmosphere between the US and Russia, and the subsequent Cold War, the artworks became a symbolic way to demonstrate the free and culturally advanced society that free market capitalism supposedly represented. In Russia, Social Realism was the artistic style of the age, depicted figures and icons of Communism in heroic, allegorical stories. The opposing governments adopted these differing artistic styles as subtle and sophisticated forms of propaganda, and on this stage, they clashed.

Abstract Expressionism, when removed from this context, had no real political agenda, so it is ironic that is was used in this way. As a general idea in Art, this movement had a huge and undeniable impact on painting, and on many other artistic disciplines. As a visual language, it has been widely appropriated by general mainstream culture, and its influence can be seen on everything from advertising to theatre.

Key Artists: Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still

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