Abstract Expressionist Art for Dummies: A Beginner’s Guide

Abstract Expressionist art formed in the decades following the Second World War. It was the first American movement to gain global traction and was hailed for its use of non-objectivity.

Dec 9, 2020By Fraser Hibbitt, BA English Literature
abstract expressionism
Women I by Willem de Kooning, 1950-52; Untitled by Mark Rothko, 1947; Composition by Joan Mitchell, 1960; The Gate by Hans Hofmann, 1950


Abstract Expressionist art emerged in the post-World War II era, centering in New York City. Given the upheavals in Europe caused by the War and political close-mindedness, many artists from Europe migrated to the U.S., especially New York, to escape personal persecution and restrictions upon their creative method. This meant that New York was to become imbued with the European Modernist ideas of abstraction as seen in the artistic ideas of Cubism and the ingenuity behind artistic approaches, such as can be seen in Surrealism.


yellow islands jackson pollock
Yellow Islands by Jackson Pollock, 1952, via Tate, London


New York City became, then, a place for artistic experimentation. It was felt that a new style of painting was needed to express the social milieu. The U.S. economy may have started to thrive after the Second World War, but this does not mean the spirit of the time was one of joy. In fact, after the atrocities of the war, it seemed offensive to be painting in a traditionalistic manner; something else was required to rejuvenate the lack of spiritual meaning in post-war life.


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Women I by Willem de Kooning, 1950-52, via MoMA, New York


This desire to express, and want of spiritual rejuvenation, was the founding feature in Abstract Expressionist art. Painters under this title such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were trying to access a way of painting which affected the primary nature of creativity, spontaneity, and human feeling; something we all shared. They managed this method through stylistic ingenuity which they hoped would transcend their individuality.


Contextualizing Abstract Expressionist Art

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Naked Man with Knife by Jackson Pollock, 1938-40, via Tate, London; with The Gate by Hans Hofmann, 1950, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


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Many of the Abstract Expressionist artists were emerging in the 1930s, coming out of the Great Depression. The two major American art movements were Regionalism and Social Realism. These movements were too explicitly political and culturally insular for what the burgeoning Abstract Expressionists were looking for.

Modernist movements from Europe had begun to be exhibited in New York by the early 1930s. These movements included Cubism, German Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism. At the end of the 1930s, a museum was set up to showcase non-objective paintings, such as those by Wassily Kandinsky. Expatriates from Europe were also beginning to come over and teach aspects of modern art, such as Hans Hofmann.


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The Flight of a Bird over the Plain III by Joan Miró, 1939; with The Kiss by Max Ernst, 1927, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


Surrealist emigres from Europe were particularly influential in the formation of Abstract Expressionism; André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst all had emigrated to the U.S. The philosophy and techniques of Surrealism influenced how the Abstract Expressionists would form their art.


The Surrealists’ focus on the unconscious mind and the primality of human emotion fit in with Abstract Expressionists’ mission. The Surrealist technique for ‘tapping’ into the unconscious mind, Psychic Automatism, would play a major role in the aesthetic of Abstract Expressionist art.


The Second World War became the definite push towards forming the sentiments of Abstract Expressionist art. The war came as a terrifying specter of what lurked inside the heart of humankind. It was difficult to reconcile clear, realistic canvases with the horror of world-wide sanctified murder.


The Formation Of Abstract Expressionism

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Gothic Landscape by Lee Krasner, 1961, via Tate, London


The post-war years in the U.S. were a time of political conservatism and paranoia. The Cold War had begun which led to a Communist witch-hunt by senator Joseph Mccarthy. Aspects of U.S. life seemed gilded with a flourishing economy and suburban life whilst the heart of matter remained insecure and fragile.


The tensions created in this period can be seen in the music and literature of the time. Jazz, especially Be-bop Jazz, emerging in the 50s, offered an auditory experience of improvisation akin to freedom. Something similar too was happening in poetry with the Beat movement which sought to replicate jazz and spontaneity in their verses. We can see now that the want of freedom, and release from frustrated tension, permeated the arts at this time.


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Meryon by Franz Kline, 1960-61, via Tate, London; with Composition by Joan Mitchell, 1960, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


It is then no wonder that Surrealism was intriguing to the Abstract Expressionists. Surrealism wanted to liberate the psyche by synthesizing the unconscious mind with the conscious mind; to free the individual from their repressed obedience. Abstract Expressionism wished to freely express and induce the same in their viewers. However, there is a telling difference between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism in terms of philosophy in that the former hailed Sigmund Freud whilst the latter were more interested in Carl Jung and his theory of the Collective Unconscious.


The Collective Unconscious tried to show that we all share a commonality of symbolic meaning in our unconscious mind; these symbols have such a powerful meaning to us because they signify the primal nature of being human. Henceforth, the early work of Abstract Expressionism was looking for inspiration from archaic forms to evoke this sense of primality. These artists were exploring, and in that exploration, they created works of art. They were seeking immediacy and an image of spontaneity in their painting which they hoped would reveal the symbolic meaning to themselves and the viewer.



The Method Of Abstract Expressionist Art

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Untitled (Green Silver) by Jackson Pollock, 1949, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


A breakthrough in technique occurred in Abstract Expressionist art when the painter Jackson Pollock began to create compositions by dripping thinned paint onto a canvas. The paintings seemed to have no object, no subject and no technique. The canvas was huge and filled with Pollock’s spontaneous paint drips.


Pollock was not alone, contemporary painters such as Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner and Franz Kline, were also exploring methods to produce paintings that not only imitated spontaneity but were themselves representative of spontaneity. This style of painting would become to be known as gestural, or action painting; the painting was no longer expressing an object but the action of the painter themselves. This style came out of the desire for an authentic expression, and image, of the inner self.


Another methodology grew out of the search for an art form of inherent meaning. Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, to name two, pioneered a way of using color and shapes to achieve this end; a painting style that would be described as ‘color field.’ Artists such as Rothko created large, formal, simplistic color fields to evoke a meditative experience for the viewer.


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Adam by Barnett Newman, 1951, via Tate, London; with Red by Mark Rothko, 1968, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


The impulse behind these simplistic color fields was to create a dynamic of sublimity for the viewer; to induce a reflective mood, and to free art from any obsolete matter which now, in the post-war years, did not reflect the cultural mood. Both ‘action’ and the ‘color field’ painting styles were carried out on very large canvases. The idea was to showcase these works in a relatively small space so that the viewer would be overwhelmed by the image, narrowing the focus onto the painting to insulate a personal connection.


Finding Meaning In No Meaning

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Ocean Greyness by Jackson Pollock, 1953, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


Abstract Expressionist art will seem jarring, incongruous, and, to some, shocking. It is easy to find derisive opinions on this kind of artwork because it doesn’t seem to tell us anything in its representation. This is precisely the introduction which the Abstract Expressionists wished for. They wanted to, at once, interrogate the notion of representation in art and induce the viewer to question what they see.


Abstract Expressionist art was an invitation for an individual to create meaning for themselves. The fact that the painting doesn’t have any inherent ‘meaning’ has nothing to do with the case. The Abstract Expressionist painters understood that the process of interpretation is a creative act, and so by painting these large canvases they were trying to spark the creativity of the viewer; the viewer shares in the action of the painting by how they are affected.


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1948 by Clyfford Still; with Untitled by Mark Rothko, 1947, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


This was a core part of the Abstract Expressionist philosophy. I have mentioned their leanings towards Carl Jung and his theory of the collective unconscious, yet they also were sympathetic towards the philosophy of Existentialism as it was popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger. Existentialism postulated that the mind cannot be reduced to any one idea about the mind; the individual makes their life for themselves.


In line with this existentialist thought, we can see that it is the individual’s onus to create meaning for him/herself. Abstract Expressionist art was drawing attention to this by forcing the viewer to be creative. They wanted the viewer to appreciate a different kind of perception. This kind of thing is obvious when we listen to music; we can appreciate a beautiful piece of music without understanding it, and it needn’t have words to tell us anything. The comparison with music works well to understand how to engage with Abstract Expressionist art; we can appreciate a line, a field of color, like a harmony in a song, appreciating it for how it moves us.


The Legacy Of Abstract Expressionist Art

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Outburst by Judit Reigl, 1956, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


The Abstract Expressionist movement in New York would successfully move the focus of the arts to the United States. It was quickly hailed as a new force in the art world and their work was showcased in traveling exhibitions across Europe and the rest of the U.S.


‘What is Abstract Expressionist art?’ is the question that drew many to their exhibitions. Their balance between energetic, entropic, and calm, reflective canvases paved the way forward for many artists struggling to find a meaningful way of representation in the post-war years. Pop art and Minimalism would flourish in the 1960s thanks to the example Abstract Expressionism set.

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By Fraser HibbittBA English LiteratureI received my BA in English literature. I enjoy reading and writing on literature, philosophy, cultural studies and art. I am a self-taught guitarist with an interest in music theory and composition. I have travelled widely having grown up in both the UK and Norway. Currently, I am based in Brighton, UK, where I finished my degree.