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. These artists moved away from European traditions of painting to create a distinctly American kind of art, which both acknowledged and challenged the domination of early 20th century giants such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Vasily Kandinsky.
Abstract Expressionism is best known for large-scale paintings that break away from traditional processes, often taking the canvas off of the easel and using unconventional materials such as house paint. While Abstract Expressionism is often considered for its advancements in painting, its ideas had deep resonance in many media, including drawing and sculpture.
America in the 1950s
Abstract Expressionism emerged in a climate of Cold War politics and social and cultural conservatism. World War II had positioned the United States as a global power, and in the years following the conflict, many Americans enjoyed the benefits of unprecedented economic growth. But by the mid-1950s the spirit of optimism had morphed into a potent mix of power and paranoia. Fueled by the fear of Communist infiltration, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin unleashed a series of “witch-hunts” against alleged Communist sympathizers. Any hint of subversion could make an individual suspect. One scholar later reflected: “It is ironic but not contradictory that in a society…in which political repression weighed as heavily as it did in the United States, abstract expressionism was for many the expression of freedom: the freedom to creative controversial works of art, the freedom symbolized by action painting, by the unbridled expressionism of artists completely without fetters.”1
Abstract Expressionist Artists in New York City
Abstract Expressionism marked the beginning of New York City’s influence as the center of the western art world. The world of the Abstract Expressionist artists was firmly rooted in Lower Manhattan. A walk along 8th Street would take you from the Waldorf Cafeteria, where penniless artists made “tomato soup” from the free hot water and ketchup; past the Hans Hofmann School of Fine artists founded by the painter of the same name; to The Club, a loft where lectures and heated arguments about art carried on late into the night. Jackson Pollock’s studio was on East 8th Street, Willem de Kooning’s and Philip Guston’s were on East 10th, and although Franz Kline moved among various homes and studios in the area, most nights found him and many of his contemporaries at the Cedar Street Tavern on University Place.
A global war, one of the most widespread in human history, fought between 1939 and 1945, and resulting in the wholesale reshaping of nations, populations, and worldwide balances of power.
Cotton or linen woven cloth used as a surface for painting.
A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.
Joseph McCarthy was a Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957. McCarthyism is a term used to describe the tactics employed by him during the early years of the Cold War. McCarthy was known for aggressively pursuing those whom he believed were Communists or spies for the Soviet Union. His methods included baseless accusations and attacks on a person's character or patriotism.
A long mark or stroke.
A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.
A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.
The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.
A political party advocating communist principles and ideologies, as developed by such political figures as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
The period of protracted conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies that lasted from the late 1940s through the 1980s.
A term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 to describe the work of artists who painted with gestures that involved more than just the traditional use of the fingers and wrist to paint, including also the arm, shoulder, and even legs. In many of these paintings the movement that went into their making remains visible.
Abstract Expressionism and Jazz
Many artists are influenced by the music of their time. Jazz was improvisational and expressive, and several Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, cite listening to the music while painting. Norman Lewis worked in Harlem, a predominantly African American neighborhood in New York City known for its artistic, musical, and literary accomplishments, and he often depicted Harlem jazz clubs in his early figurative works. His later abstract paintings seem to integrate the lyricism and spontaneity of jazz. Comparing his technique with that of a legendary trumpeter, Willem de Kooning once wrote: “Miles Davis bends the notes. He doesn’t play them, he bends them. I bend the paint.”
Related Artists: Louise Bourgeois, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Norman Lewis, Louise Nevelson, Barnett Newman, Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, David Smith, Clyfford Still
VIDEO: From the Curator: Ann Temkin on the exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York (2010)
Questions & Activities
Artists and Community
Research. Abstract Expressionism developed out of a close-knit group of artists in downtown Manhattan. Explore the AB EX NY map and listen to Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture Ann Temkin discuss the community. Consider the following questions: What was the community like? What did the artists share in common? How did they differ?
Compare. Collaboration was also central to artistic movements such as Dada. Read about the Dadaists’ interest in artistic collaboration and compare to that of the Abstract Expressionists.
Reflect. Summarize your findings in a one- or two-paragraph essay.
The Sound of Movement
Many Abstract Expressionist artists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Norman Lewis, were inspired by the jazz music of their time. Pollock, for example, would often listen to jazz music while making his gestural paintings.
Look. Look at Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950, Willem de Kooning’s Woman, I, and Norman Lewis’ City Night. For each painting, use your body to mimic the gestures you think the artist made. Pay close attention to the lines and brushwork.
Reflect. If you could assign a sound to each of the works, what would they be? Perform or record those sounds using an audio recorder. Compare and contrast your sounds with the images, considering how the composition of each work relates to the recorded audio.