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 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 mediums, 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.
The act of improvising, that is, to make, compose, or perform on the spur of the moment and with little or no preparation.
One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.
The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.
A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.
A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).
A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).
The subject matter or significance of a work of art, especially as contrasted with its form.
The manner in which a painter applies paint with a brush.
A closely woven, sturdy cloth of hemp, cotton, linen, or a similar fiber, frequently stretched over a frame and used as a surface for painting.
The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.
A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.
The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).
An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.
A long mark or stroke.
A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.
Representing a form or figure in art that retains clear ties to the real world.
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.
Non-representational works of art that do not depict scenes or objects in the world or have discernable subject matter.
The dominant artistic movement in the 1940s and 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the first to place New York City at the forefront of international modern art. The associated artists developed greatly varying stylistic approaches, but shared a commitment to an abstract art that powerfully expresses personal convictions and profound human values. They championed bold, gestural abstraction in all mediums, particularly large painted canvases.
Art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term “action painting” in 1952 to describe the work of artists who painted using bold gestures that engaged more of the body than traditional easel painting. Often the viewer can see broad brushstrokes, drips, splashes, or other evidence of the physical action that took place upon the canvas.
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 legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, 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
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 sounds to each of the works, what would they be? Perform or record those sounds. Compare and contrast your sounds with the images, considering how the composition of each relates to the audio.