Main Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism and Famous Artists of the Movement

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Abstract Expressionism was a new way of creating abstract art which started to evolve in the late 1940s and became more dominant in the 1950s. This movement started in America post World War 2, being the first American movement to become the centre of the art world at the time. It is highly believed that Abstract Expressionism was influenced by previous movements in the 1930s. The majority of those who had become Abstract Expressionists experienced the well know ‘Great Depression ‘.

Clearly the depression was caused by the terrors of the second World War. The cure for these artists which brought them to maturity was painting in styles such as Social Realism and Regionalist movements. They based in New York City, being known as Abstract Expressionist as well as ‘The New York School’, however they were never associated formally. These artists felt that no other art movement could express the way they felt like Abstract Expressionism did. “It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.” (Jackson Pollock)

Immediately after the war, Clyfford Still gave a start to the movement changing his artistic style from representational artworks to abstract artworks. Even though he was not as known as the other abstract expressionists, he gave the movement the kick start it needed. As years passed by, artists joined the movement and started structuring it, such as Jason Pollock with his well-known drip technique and Willem de Kooning with his Women Paintings in a very interesting abstract way.

In 1951, 18 artists following the same movement having the same opinions boycotted a contemporary art exhibition, “American Painting Today – 1950”. During this event the artists were persuaded into taking a picture, which was then published, giving this group a name, ‘The Irascibles’. These artists became popular at the time and the name ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was created for the movement, giving it a sense of direction, an identity and showing the common purpose of the artists.

Abstract Expressionism was not just created, events one after another helped create this movement. The surrealist mindset is what motivated Abstract Expressionists into creating this type of art. These artists believed that art should be coming from the unconscious mind, which was exactly what Surrealism preached. In fact, Abstract Expressionism is a very vast movement, being made up of different artistic styles, both in technique and expression. Even though it has these differences, these artists still share a lot of common characteristics in their art.

“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes…. Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.” (Arshile Gorky)

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As quoted by Arshile Gorky, abstraction takes a totally different direction when creating art as does abstract expressionism. It expresses the artists feelings in a way no other art can, with every piece telling its own story. Their artworks all have forms and shapes which cannot be seen in the visible world. They emphasize the liberty of creating art. Their artworks express freedom and spontaneity. They also express their emotions in their artworks. Finally, their artworks have a monumental size where they seek to fill large canvases and treat the whole canvas with equal importance to further enhance the effects of unconsciousness in the artworks and make the viewer feel their emotions.

One of the greatest Abstract Expressionists is Jackson Pollock, with whom the famous ‘drip technique’ is associated with. It is considered as one of the most original and effective inventions of the century. He was considered as one of the greatest living painters in the United States at the time. Critics absolutely loved his works and his originality. His technique gave many feelings to the viewer, it helped show clearer the message he tried to portray in his artworks.

Another interesting fact about Jackson Pollock is that he did not always use the drip technique in his artworks. A very fascinating painting of his which does not contain this technique is ‘The She-Wolf’ painted in 1943. It was the first painting by this artist to enter a museum collection. The wolf in the painting is associated with the same wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus in the famous myth of Rome’s birth. This is however only an assumption after a lot of research as Pollock did not want to share the subject and meaning of the painting with the world, making it even more special. “She-Wolf came into existence because I had to paint it,” is what Pollock had to say about his painting following that if he said anything else other than that he would risk destroying it.

This painting is such a great example of the archetypal symbolism which Pollock studies in his early years. The first layer of the painting consists of many colours splattered, washed and dripped vigorously. A thick black outline is then superimposed on the coloured layer complimented with a white slashing layer to create the shape of the wolf. It also indicated the way the wolf is facing. Unlike many of his other artworks, in this one he focused on the mythology and iconography of the unconscious.

Abstract Expressionism has two tendencies usually associated with it, these being ‘Colour Field Painting’ and ‘Action Painting’. Colour Field Painting was developed by various Abstract Expressionists, most importantly by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. These artistly, all being independent artists searched for a new style of abstraction where they could express themselves in a more modern and unconscious way. To achieve these sensations, they forgot about all other forms of art and made the most out of colour, using excessive amounts of colour and placing it onto large canvases. Still, however, they used bold colours in their paintings applying them by juxtaposing textures and forms.

Being considered among the most intense and important figures in Abstract Expressionism as was Jackson Pollock, his art pieces were by far some of the best and most influential in this movement. His ‘Light Red Over Black’ series is a very good example of Colour field painting. This artwork has simple dark coloured boxes laying on a bright solid colour. His works make the viewer feel the urge to stare into its delicate surfaces. This effect was achieved by applying thin layers of paint making the light appear to be coming from the centre of the canvas.

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