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Rosie Duffy

Abstract Expressionism
Abstract expressionism is a term used to describe an American post-World War II
art movement beginning in New York in the 1940s. This art movement was a
game changer for the art world, as it was the first specifically American
movement that shifted the centre for the worlds art from Paris to America. The
artists from this movement were mostly male, New Yorkers and painters and
sculptors. (Street, 2016) The writer Robert Coates first used the term Abstract
Expressionism to identify this new art movement, with characteristics of
expressive mark making and abstract forms. However, the Abstract
Expressionists were never a formal association, and they all considered
themselves independent. Hence, Abstract Expressionism is not a style. Among
others, artists such as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Mark Rothko (1903-1970),
Franz Kline (1910-1962), Clyfford Still (1904-1980), Willem de Kooning (1904-
1997), Lee Krasner (1908-1984) and Barnett Newman (1905-1980) did, however
share some assumptions and interests despite considering their art as extremely
personal. (Paul, 2016)

The artists broke away from traditional and accepted conventions of art in both
technique and subject matter. One notable aspect of this that makes it easier to
draw connections between the artists of this movement is the monumental scale
of their works. ("Abstract Expressionism | Exhibition | Royal Academy Of Arts") I went to visit
the exhibition of many different artists of this art period in the Royal Academy of
Arts recently. The large scale of many of the pieces gave me a personal
experience that was visually stimulating, overwhelming and absorbing. Each
room I entered from beginning to end felt raw and unique. Though, perhaps in
some of the rooms where a variety of artists shared their space on the walls,
there was a sense of not knowing where to look at times. The sheer number of
art pieces, from paintings to sculptures made it difficult to focus fully on just one:
to gauge a deeper understanding of its meaning and purpose without being
caught by large and emotive colour in my peripheral vision. Perhaps Clyfford Still
had a point in his belief that an artists work should be seen on its own. (ARTnews,

The artists of this movement also valued spontaneity and improvisation, as their
work stood as reflections of their individual psyches and views/emotions towards
worldly events. They placed the highest importance on process, which can be
categorised in two subsections: action painting and colour fields. ("Abstract
Expressionism: A BeginnerS Guide | Blog | Royal Academy Of Arts")

The action painters were led by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and are
characterised by a focus on painting as a dynamic act of creation. They worked
in a spontaneous manner, often making sweeping gestural marks by hand.
Through such a process, the action painters were able to directly place their
inner compulsions onto canvas. ("Abstract Expressionism")

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Rosie Duffy


Pollock in the late 40s began using a technique that later became known as drip
painting. A fine example of this technique can be seen in his 1952 painting called
Blue Poles. He placed a canvas flat on the floor and applied his first layer of black
emulsion from the can by dripping it from a height onto the canvas using a
paintbrush or stick, and then let the paint drip by hanging it on a wall. Once this
was dry, he placed the canvas back down on the floor and added subsequent
layers of paint by pouring and splattering paint from as high as 2 ft above the
canvas. The technique of action painting in this style demonstrates that the act
of the painting is representative of the subject itself. It is clear that Pollock
embraced this technique as a kind of performance, where the canvas is the
stage. (Street, 2016)

Exemplified by Rothko, Still and Newman, colour field paintings were

characterised by large expanses of more flatly applied colour. Their works use
large scale, non-objective imagery as does the action paintings, but does
however lack the gestural and energetic quality of the other style of Abstract
Expressionism. ("Abstract Expressionism", 2016)

One more example of colour field painters from this movement is Ad Reinhardt,
who painted from 1953 until his death in 1967, black oil paintings, which at first
glance appear to be simply black square canvases, but on closer inspection, has
been composed of extremely dark hues of red, blue and green. Paintings such as
Abstract Painting, No. 23 (1963) are developed through carefully layered dark
shades of colour in matte oil paint. His black paintings are characterised by
reduced visual stimuli, including colour, shape and texture, allowing a pure and
unmediated experience of art in its purest form. Inspired by Zen Buddhism, his
work reflects the idea of aesthetic detachment from the material world and
emphasis on meditation in the way his paintings slow down the process of
viewing. It is only after careful and continuous looking that the true colours can
be noticed. (Street, 2016) In 1961, Reinhardt described them as thus:

A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a
man, as wide as a man's outstretched arms (not large, not small, sizeless),
trisected (no composition), one horizontal form negating one vertical form
(formless, no top, no bottom, directionless), three (more or less) dark (lightless)
nocontrasting (colourless) colours, brushwork brushed out to remove
brushwork, a matte, flat, freehand, painted surface (glossless, textureless, non
linear, no hard-edge, no soft edge) which does not reflect its surroundingsa
pure, abstract, nonobjective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless,
disinterested paintingan object that is selfconscious (no unconsciousness)

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Rosie Duffy

ideal, transcendent, aware of nothing but art (absolutely no antiart). ("Ad

Reinhardt. Abstract Painting. 1963 | Moma")

Although Reinhardts black paintings seem to stand on their own, as with Pollock,
Rothko and many other artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement, scale
contributed to the meaning. For the time of their creation, the works, including
Reinhardts were very large in scale. By placing them in enclosed and intimate
environments, the viewer gets a sense of being enveloped by confronting the
paintings. Rothko famously said I paint big to be intimate. ("Abstract Expressionism:
History, Characteristics")

The movement synthesized three other art forms, including social realism
(particularly with Philip Guston), primitive art and the psychological undertones
and automatic painting techniques of surrealism. By looking at tribal artifacts
and cave paintings, the Abstract Expressionists found a cultural escape during a
time of struggle and fascism post-war and during the Great Depression. The
primitive art was an inspiration in seeking a timeless and powerful subject
matter. ("Khan Academy")

The Abstract Expressionists also gravitated towards the Existentialist philosophy

(originated by European intellectuals such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul
Sartre) which became an appealing interpretation following the II World War.
Existentialism as a philosophy emphasises the existence of the individual person
as a free and responsible agent that determines their own development through
the acts of the will. ("Existentialism In Modern Art - Modern Art Terms And Concepts") The idea
that an individuals actions can give meaning to life suggested the importance of
the artists creative process. The physical and highly expressive painted marks of
Pollocks paintings for instance, might come to serve as a lasting mark of his
existence. Since all of the artists involved in the movement developed highly
individualistic processes and styles, this can be acknowledged to be their own
artistic contribution. ("Khan Academy")

It can be questioned whether Abstract Expressionism is an art movement,

considering all of the artists related adopted highly distinct and individual styles
of work. The art from this movement was diverse in form too, from painting,
sculpting to photography. From Pollocks action paintings to Ad Reinhardts Black
Paintings on canvas, it is hard to associate such artists into one category.
However, through analysing the meanings and background of each Abstract
Expressionist, one can see that each diverse artwork and style coincides and
emerged at a time when the idea of individual freedom was celebrated. What lies
at the core of this movement is the subjective and self-expression of profound
emotion and individual experiences, as well as universal themes. Hence, it can
be argued that this term connects artists that did share much in common, rather
than simply being linked through mere location (NYC) and date (1930s).

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Rosie Duffy


Street, B. (2016) Royal Academy of Arts Exhibition in Focus: Abstract

Expressionism. [brochure]

Paul, Author:. "Abstract Expressionism | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline Of Art History

| The Metropolitan Museum Of Art". The Mets Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

"Abstract Expressionism | Exhibition | Royal Academy Of

Arts". N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

ARTnews, T. (2017). Art Is a Force for Life, Not Death: Clyfford Still on the Power
of Painting, in 1976 /ARTnews. Available at:
on-the-power-of-painting-in-1976/ Web. 5 Jan. 2017.

"Abstract Expressionism: A BeginnerS Guide | Blog | Royal Academy Of

Arts". N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016. N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

"Abstract Expressionism". N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

"Ad Reinhardt. Abstract Painting. 1963 | Moma". The Museum of Modern Art. N.p.,
2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

"Abstract Expressionism: History, Characteristics". N.p.,

2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

"Khan Academy". Khan Academy. N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

In Modern Art - Modern Art Terms And Concepts". The Art Story. N.p., 2016.
Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

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