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The Rise of Abstract Expressionism

The Rise of Abstract Expressionism
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The term Abstract Expressionism was first coined in 1919 in Der Sturm, a popular German art periodical. Today, most people connect it with the 1940s art movement that arose in the USA after the Second World War. Also known as the New York School, the movement boasted many famous artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline.

These artists were much influenced by those European refugees who had a modernist approach to painting. They disliked the term abstract, defining their art as primal, dredged from the human collective unconscious. They wanted their art to epitomize the human condition, particularly in light of the recent horrors of the War and the Great Depression. Abstract Expressionism drew on Jungian-inspired ideas of the collective primitive human experience. This contrasted with the earlier Surrealism movement, begun in the 1920s, which was more inspired by Freud. Abstract Expressionists who had survived the carnage of the War were drawn also to the merits of the new Existentialism. The work of an artist could now not only become his legacy but actual physical proof of his existence. Still, the influences behind Abstract expressionism are not easy to pin down. Attempting to explain them, Adolph Gottlieb once wrote, “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought.”

While Abstract Expressionism shared no definable style, spontaneity, energy and fluidity were constants. As indeed was producing works on a large, sprawling canvas. The New York movement aimed to break convention with the traditional, representational art popular in the 1930s. Each artist had his own inimitable technique, where the thickness and texture of the paint became integral to the art. Some preferred to use sweeping, dynamic lines and curves, often applied randomly to the canvas. This form of painting, immortalized most keenly by Pollock’s technique of dripping paint from cans, was known as action painting.  Pollock would dance around the canvas while pouring or flicking paint onto it. He insisted this was his way of channelling his subconscious impulses. His unique art became a spontaneous act of drama. Other action painters combined gestural methods with striking calligraphy to create their art. Franz Kline is one such notable. His use of strong textured brush strokes, thick sweeping black lines, is very reminiscent of early Chinese calligraphy.

Later, other artists, such as Mark Rothko, leant towards simpler compositions. Rothko created resonant fields of a single colour, designed to evoke a contemplative, elemental response in the viewer. Orange and Yellow, an oil on canvas painted by Rothko in 1956, is a perfect example. A devout Jew, Rothko produced a legacy of great works that are like synagogues for the mind.

Often known as the golden age of American art, the Abstract Expressionism movement was hugely successful in the 1950s. So much so that New York eventually replaced Paris as the cultural centre for contemporary art. Abstract Expressionism enjoyed both critical and commercial success. This was quite ironic considering most artists leant towards holding quite Marxist views. The U.S. government exhibited Abstract Expressionism around the world during the Cold War. They believed it represented true American values of democracy, individualism and high culture.

Abstract Expressionism influenced contemporary art throughout the 20th Century, though action painting declined. But the movement as a whole breathed fire into the emerging art schools of Minimalism, Pop Art and Neo-Expressionism.



Abstract Expressionism, an introduction, by Dr Virginia Spivey, Khan Academy
Abstract Expressionism, by Stella Paul, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct 2004
Abstract Expressionism, written by The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, modified June 1st, 2018
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