Chapter 15: Abstract Expressionism

The Abstract Expressionists (sometimes also called “The New York School”) were a loosely affiliated group of artists that emerged in New York City during World War II.  Their style came to be known as Abstract Expressionism because of the abstract nature of their pictures and their emphasis on personal expression.  Art historians generally divide Abstract Expressionism into two distinct styles:

  • Action Painting, or Gestural Abstraction refers to paintings on a large scale that employ sweeping strokes that suggest the physical action, or gesture that made them (Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning)
  • Color Field, or Chromatic Abstraction refers to large canvases painted with broad areas of atmospheric color (Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman)

Art historians also distinguish between the formative stages of the movement, when artists explored archaic myths and symbols in their works, and the mature phase of Abstract Expressionism, when members of the group began to work on large scale canvases devoid of recognizable symbols or subjects.

Psychological Trauma
Abstract Expressionism was first and foremost a response to the psychological trauma of war.  As Barnett Newman recalled:

“We felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world devastated by a great depression and a fierce World War, and it was impossible to paint the kind of painting that we were doing – flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello.”
Barnett Newman, “Response to Reverend Thomas F Mathews,” 1969; rpt in Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews, University of California Press, 1990.

Faced with the “moral crisis of a world in shambles” the Abstract Expressionists abandoned the styles of painting that had been prevalent in the 1930s — “American Scene” realism and Cubist-inspired geometric abstraction — and turned inward, seeking psychological or inner explanations for historical events.   Working on large canvases devoid of recognizable imagery, they sought a direct expression of their inner psychology.

Action Painting
The American writer and critic Harold Rosenberg christened this new style of painting Action Painting” in an influential essay published in Art News in 1952:

“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.  The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.”
Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters” from Tradition of the New, originally in Art News 51/8, Dec. 1952, p. 22

Sartre had written that “man must create his own essence; it is in throwing himself into the world, in suffering it, in struggling with it, that – little by little – he defines himself,”  and Rosenberg echoes these ideas in his characterization of the empty canvas as a kind of tabula rasa, in which the artist struggles to create without preconception, and unfettered by rules of taste or convention.  “A painting that is an act,” he said,  “is inseparable from the biography of the artist.”  As Jackson Pollock put it:   “Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”

AB EX NY:  Introduction (MOMA)

Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock in his studio, 1950

The leading representative of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock was born in Cody Wyoming and studied with the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton.  In the 1940s he developed a unique style of “drip painting” in which he laid his canvas on the floor, and dripped and splattered enamel house paint using non-traditional materials such as paintbrushes, sticks, and turkey-basters.  Influenced by Surrealist methods of “automatism,” and Carl Jung’s theories of the “collective unconscious,” Pollock believed that this method enabled him to express his deep unconscious impulses more directly.  Indian sand painters and the improvisatory approach of jazz music also influenced Pollock’s spontaneous method.

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (No. 30), 1950
Metropolitan Museum

Autumn Rhythm is one of Pollock’s largest canvases, measuring 207 inches in width. To make this picture, Pollock poured, dribbled, and flicked skeins of thinned enamel paint across the surface of the unprimed canvas, creating a dense tangle of lines that seem to have no beginning or end. For the viewer, the experience of the painting can be disorienting: its scale makes the picture seem like a physical environment rather than a “picture” that we can observe at a distance. As our eyes instinctively follow the arc of the lines, we become engulfed in the picture’s frenetic energy, and disoriented by its lack of focus or composure.  What are we to make of this picture when looking at it?

The following observations were written by students who were asked to look at Pollock’s painting in the Metropolitan Museum, and to record their responses without reading anything about the artist or the work:

“This piece seems to be at least partly about the process of painting and the freedom to explore unconventional ways of applying paint, beyond the constraints of a brush”

“All I could think about was the process that went into the painting . . . . It gave me a sense of freedom, in a way”

“[It seems to] represent disharmony. I had the feeling there was discontent in his life, or in the world at that time”

“The forms are furious, organic and inorganic, curved and ruler straight. It is an angry piece”

“This seems to be an abstract painting that evokes passion in one way or another”

“The movement seems to express frustration. The use of bland colors such as brown and white gives it the feeling of frustrated energy as opposed to excited energy in more colorful paintings”

“I get the impression that it represents our world . . . the brown splotches are very cluttered and suffocated like an urban environment”

“Seeing that it was painted during the Cold War gives it a possible reason why the composition is in such turmoil and tumult”

Jackson Pollock and his New York School colleagues believed that by eliminating recognizable subject matter from their work, they were creating a “universal language” that could be understood by everyone, regardless of language or culture (let’s remember that they were heirs to the 1930s ideal of “art for the millions”). What these students responses indicate is that it is possible to derive a sense of “meaning” from the work, if we just allow ourselves to respond to it intuitively. Interestingly, there seems to be a common theme in the responses, reflected in such word choices as: “chaos,” “disharmony,” and “turmoil.” These words are consistent with the Abstract Expressionists’ professed intention to express the “neurosis of the age.” But some students also picked up on the theme of “freedom,” which was an equally strong concern: driven by the Existentialist desire to rebel against conformity, the Abstract Expressionists sought above all to express themselves as individuals, free from the constraints of a society they regarded as morally reprehensible.

Ovation TV:  Jackson Pollock

AB EX NY:  the Painting Techniques of Jackson Pollock (MOMA)

Willem De Kooning, Woman I, 1950-1952
Museum of Modern Art

Willem de Kooning also worked in a gestural “action painting” style, but in the 1950’s he returned to figuration (recognizable subject matter in the form of figures) in his “Woman” series. The hideous women in this series drew on a variety of sources from ancient fertility goddesses to contemporary advertisements and pin-ups.  Pressed close to the foreground plane, the figure’s enormously over-sized breasts, large toothy smile, and ferocious gaze makes her seem threatening and dangerous, much like the “savage” women who gaze out of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon.

The hideous women in this series drew on a variety of sources, from ancient fertility goddesses to contemporary advertisements and pin-ups. Pressed close to the foreground plane, the figure’s enormously over-sized breasts, large toothy smile, and ferocious gaze makes her seem threatening and dangerous. De Kooning re-painted the figure many times over, and er menacing character is heightened by the aggressive and frantic application of paint. “I like a nice, juicy, greasy surface,” de Kooning once said; “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.”

In his Woman series, de Kooning endeavored to express what he believed to be the “universal” theme of sexual aggression and desire: “The Woman,” he said, “had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols.” But as Erika Doss observes, de Kooning’s attitudes mirror “the tense postwar dynamics that surrounded gender, sexuality, and power” in the 1950s:

“The 1950s were rife with sexualized images of women; sexy women were called ‘bombshells’ and film noir movies often focused on the destructive power of female sexuality.  That power was made less threatening if it was contained:  girdled inside tight garments; leashed inside the confines of heterosexual marriage.”
Willem De Kooning, Woman I, 1950-1952
Museum of Modern Art
Erika Doss, Twentieth Century American Art, p. 136

Willem de Kooning Woman 1 (Smarthistory)

Listen to Ann Temkin discuss Women I at MOMA 

Mark Rothko, No. 3/No. 13, 1949
Museum of Modern Art

Unlike the gestural style of “Action painting,” Mark Rothko applied his paint in thin washes using sponges and rags, so that the pigment soaked and stained the canvas, creating an atmospheric, immaterial effect.  The edges of forms are soft and blurry, rather than hard and geometric, making them ambiguous, since it is difficult to discern what is “solid” and “void.”

The “drama” of the canvas is captured in this description from the Museum of Modern Art’s website:

“Narrowly separated, rectangular blocks of color hover in a column against a colored ground. Their edges are soft and irregular, so that when Rothko uses closely related tones, the rectangles sometimes seem barely to coalesce out of the ground, concentrations of its substance. The green bar in Magenta, Black, Green on Orange, on the other hand, appears to vibrate against the orange around it, creating an optical flicker. In fact the canvas is full of gentle movement, as blocks emerge and recede, and surfaces breathe. Just as edges tend to fade and blur, colors are never completely flat, and the faint unevenness in their intensity, besides hinting at the artist’s process in layering wash on wash, mobilizes an ambiguity, a shifting between solidity and impalpable depth.”
Museum of Modern Art

Rothko made the pictures large in scale because he wanted the viewer to experience them as a physical environment.  When we look at his paintings, we feel as if we are looking into a boundless space.  Like Van Gogh gazing at the night sky, Rothko saw his pictures as a vehicle for spiritual transport, and a “doorway” to another reality.  The sensations he meant for the viewer to experience while looking at his paintings have been associated with the Sublime:

“The sense of boundlessness in Rothko’s paintings has been related to the aesthetics of the sublime, an implicit or explicit concern of a number of his fellow painters in the New York School. In fact, the remarkable color in his paintings was for him only a means to a larger end: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom,” he said. “If you . . . are moved only by . . . color relationships, then you miss the point.””
Museum of Modern Art

AB EX NY:  Mark Rothko (MOMA)

Mark Rothko, In the Tower – National Gallery of Art 


Abstract Expressionism, Metropolitan Museum
Abstract Expressionism @
Abstract Expressionist New York, MOMA
Irving Sandler, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience, 2009