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Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionist artists reinvented abstract painting—and other media—forming a distinctly American style.

The Processes and Materials of Abstract Expressionist Painting

Discover the innovative tecniques of Abstract Expressionist painters

Abstract Expressionism: A New Art for a New World

After the atrocities of World War II, many artists felt that the world needed to be reinvented

The Sublime and the Spiritual

Abstract Expressionists used color and scale to create a sense of spirituality and the sublime

Abstract Expressionist Sculpture

Explore how sculptors took on the challenges of Abstract Expressionism

The political strife in Europe brought about by World War II forced many European artists to emigrate to the United States, bringing with them their own traditions and ideas. A number of American artists looked to the Surrealists (who were interested in exploring the unconscious and the archaic as universal symbols that could resonate with all of humanity) while creating a distinctly American style. Adolph Gottlieb, for example, infused his work with imagery inspired by Native American sources. Others, like Clyfford Still, were so disillusioned by the horrors of war that they chose to eschew traces of European tradition altogether. As Barnett Newman said, “After the monstrosity of the war, what do we do? What is there to paint? We have to start all over again.”

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

A literary, intellectual, and artistic movement that began in Paris in 1924 and was active through World War II. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s writings on psychology, Surrealists, led by André Breton, were interested in how the irrational, unconscious mind could move beyond the constraints of the rational world. Surrealism grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and artistic practices after World War I.

In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

Abstract Expressionism and Psychoanalysis
Like the Surrealists before them, many Abstract Expressionist painters were interested in psychoanalysis and the theories of Carl Jung, who identified certain myths and archetypes indicative of what he called a collective unconscious. In the 1940s, artists like Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock believed that they could use universal symbols to evoke certain emotions in the viewer.

Questions & Activities

  1. Artists and the Past

    Barnett Newman said, “After the monstrosity of the war, what do we do? What is there to paint? We have to start all over again.”

    Can artists ever completely shed tradition to create a new kind of art? Or are artists always bound to the art that came before them?

    Reflect. Share your ideas in a one-page essay. Point to specific visual details in the works of Newman and other Abstract Expressionist to support your argument.

  2. Make a Monument

    In the 1960s, Barnett Newman created Broken Obelisk as a monument to his times. What would a monument representing the early 2000s look like? What kind of materials would you use to make it? What would it celebrate or critique about the present moment?

    Draw or write a description of this modern-day monument.