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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

Through exploration of gesture, line, shape, and color, many Abstract Expressionist artists hoped to evoke strong emotional reactions. Their grand scale created an overwhelming and, for some, almost religious viewing experience. Mark Rothko famously said that his paintings should be viewed from a distance of 18 inches, perhaps to dominate the viewer’s field of vision and thus create a feeling of contemplation and transcendence.

Abstract Expressionism and the Sublime

Some critics, such as Robert Rosenblum, considered Abstract Expressionism’s interest in the sublime to be a continuation of the ideals of the Romantics. Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement from the late 17th century and early 18th century that placed emphasis on the aesthetic experience and the emotions it evoked. In 1948, Newman wrote an essay titled “The Sublime is Now,” in which he asserts that America is where artists are finally achieving the sublime: “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”1

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

Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” Theories of Modern Art (Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1984), 553.

Awe-inspiring or worthy of reverence. In philosophy, literature, and the arts, the sublime refers to a quality of greatness that is beyond all calculation.

The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.

A large painting applied to a wall or ceiling, especially in a public space.

A state of mind or emotion, a pervading impression.

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.

Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).

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.

Questions & Activities

  1. The Chapels of Rothko and Nevelson

    Mark Rothko created murals for a chapel in Houston, Texas; he considered these murals to be among his most important works. Louise Nevelson created a permanent installation for the Erol Beker Chapel of the Good Shepherd at St. Peter’s Church in New York City.

    Research these projects. Start by visiting the Rothko Chapel website and the St. Peter’s Church website.

    Compare. How are the two chapels similar? How are they different? Summarize your observations in a one-page essay.

  2. Make an Abstract Drawing

    Abstract Expressionist artists used gesture and color to evoke certain moods or feelings. How can you express emotion in an entirely abstract drawing?

    Consider how you might use shape, lines, and color to express feelings such as hope, fear, confidence, frustration, and exhilaration. What kind of emotion might a curvy line represent? What feeling does the color yellow evoke? Pick two emotions—a positive one and a negative one—and create abstract drawings to represent them. Remember to avoid drawing any figurative elements, such as faces, hearts, or tears.

    Compare the visual elements you used in these drawings. How are they similar? How are they different?

  3. Art and Spirituality

    Consider the works of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Watch the videos on the painting techniques of Rothko and Newman.

    Reflect. Can the process of making art be a spiritual act? Can viewing art be a spiritual act? Write your response in a one-page essay. In crafting your response, consider your own experiences viewing art.