“Abstract expressionist value expression over perfection, vitality over finish, fluctuation over repose, the unknown over the known, the veiled over the clear, the individual over society and the inner over the outer.”

– William C. Seitz, American artist and Art historian

The expressionist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries could be credited to Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s “Expression Theory” centered on a theory that art evokes feelings in the viewer. The role of the artist is to provide the viewer with something that will achieve this effect.

Abstract expressionism relies on the medium and composition to communicate. Abstract expressionists like Pollock did not place any significance on what the artist thought or conveyed when creating the work, therefore the meaning of the artwork is determined by the viewer. Mostly based in New York City, abstract expressionists aimed to make art that was both abstract and expressive. The surrealist idea that art should be a product of the unconscious mind; and on the other hand, the automatism of artist Joan Miró, inspired these works.

Abstract Art was a means of self-expression for all involved, born of emotions and themes, and most of them were influenced by Surrealism. It was a movement influenced by post-war anxiety and trauma that gave rise to a new style. Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock were among the most influential American Abstract Expressionist painters.

Types of Abstract Expressionism | Abstract expressionism

Abstract expressionists were divided into two broad categories: so-called action painters, who painted with expressive brush strokes, and colour field painters, who painted over large areas with a single colour. It is broadly divided into two groups: Gestural Abstraction and Colour Field.

1. Gestural Abstraction

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In Pollock and de Kooning’s work, there is a clear statement of gestural abstraction through their seemingly chaotic marks and vigorous motions. Many of their paintings were created in a sweeping gestural manner using large brushes. Despite the intention to create the works, their effects can be described as the result of random impulse. Pollock let his moods dictate the colour and direction of the paint he splattered on a canvas that lay on the ground. Though it looks as though he merely stepped back and dropped the can or brush on the canvas, every move was deliberate. Action painters directly conveyed their ideas onto the canvas in this way.

2. Color Field

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Mark Rothko_©Art Shortlist

Painters like Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko painted fields of colours on canvas. Religion and myth were deeply important to them, so they created simple compositions with large expanses of colour to provoke contemplation in their viewers. Though the effect appears simple, those colours, when observed by an acute audience, provide depth and candour to the work that is made up of several hues.

As Barnett Newman wrote in an essay in 1948: “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ or man or ‘life,’ we are making them out of ourselves, out of our feelings”. Around 1960, this approach to painting evolved into colour field painting, which uses more or less one colour in large areas.

Beginnings of Abstract Expressionism

Having experienced a severe economic depression before World War II, the American public had suffered varied psychological effects of the end of the war. It was an identity crisis for the country, putting on a brave face while privately going through a crisis of identity. The soldiers returning from war had seen horrible destruction, genocide, and atrocities that they simply could not bear to contemplate.

Art and literature flourished in freethinking cultural areas like New York, but artists, poets, and other freethinkers became paranoid as the government became more anti-communist and society-homogenized. It was important for the artists to have an outlet where they could express themselves freely!

The movement allowed artists of all genres to use abstraction to express ideas and feelings without fear of public scrutiny. Public reaction to abstract expressionist artworks was reluctant, but it did not impede the movement’s freedom of expression.

Important Art and Artists of Abstract Expressionism 

1. 1957-D No. 1

Artist: Clyfford Still  

The composition of 957-D-No. 1 (PH-48) exemplifies Still’s ability to create visually complex and balanced compositions, with jagged jolts of yellow and beige flowing seamlessly into the dense black surface. The compositional paradox revolves around the tension between advancing and receding spaces created by black and white.

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1957-D No. 1_©Albright-Knox

2. Door to the River

Artist: Willem de Kooning

In Door to the River, the artist uses wide brush strokes originating from a house painter’s brush. The canvas has a rectangle of pink, yellow, brown, and white in the centre, under which there is a passage of blue. The bold opening floats amid vibrant space, hinting at a sense of otherworldliness.

Image 4_Door to the River_©Whitney Museum of American Art

3. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950)

Artist: Jackson Pollock

The piece is typical of Pollock’s “drip” works, in which paint was poured, sprayed, and applied by the artist almost physically to a canvas lying on the ground. As he expressed an inner turmoil through gesture, line, texture, and composition, he made an important breakthrough in his career. Action Painting derives its name from these paintings, combining chance and control in an unconventional way that led to Abstract Expressionism’s development.

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Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)_©Wikipedia

4. Vir heroicus sublimis (1950-51)

Artist: Barnett Newman

A 95″ by 213″ painting, Vir heroicus sublimis translates to “Man, heroic and sublime,” and was Newman’s largest painting at the time. However, the artist would go on to accomplish even more expansive works. A vast field of dark red is punctuated twice with vertical lines called “zips” by Newman, who believed this motif could communicate human qualities which echoed ancient arts.

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Vir heroicus sublimis_©MoMa

5. Chief (1950)

Artist: Franz Kline

In the early days of his career, Franz Kline projected large images of his drawings on the wall using them as the basis for his paintings. One day, he blew the image up too large, resulting in only a fraction of it appearing in strong, thick black strokes. 

The pieces, while wholly unrecognizable in terms of their original subject, still seemed to resonate with an energy that made them believably connected to their titles. In addition to his energetic palette and bold black and white strokes, he made a point to always paint the white rather than relying on the canvas to play that role.

Chief (1950)_©MoM

6. Evening Rendezvous (1962)

Artist: Norman Lewis

Even though the artist’s work is highly abstract, its red, white, and blue colors conjure images of hooded Klansman gathered around a bonfire at twilight. Typical of Lewis is the use of atmospheric washes of hue to convey mood, in this case, one of somberness.

Evening Rendezvous _©Smithsonian American Art Museum

7. Thaw (1957) | Abstract expressionism

Artist: Lee Krasner

In this piece, repeated oval shapes are partially filled with colour and evoke tropical foliage that is unlike anything else on earth. It is a cultivated abstract nature, inspired by Henri Matisse and nurtured in the studio of Hans Hofmann. Unerring energy and athleticism defines her strokes. They are the gestures of a painter deeply influenced by nature and characterized by unbridled spirit.

Thaw (1957)_©WikiArt


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Metmuseum.org. 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm> [Accessed 26 December 2021].

Expressionism, A., 2021. Abstract Expressionism Movement Overview. [online] The Art Story. Available at: <https://www.theartstory.org/movement/abstract-expressionism/> [Accessed 26 December 2021].

White, K., 2021. Contemporary Art Mar 16, 2018 7 Things You Need to Know: Abstract Expressionism. [online] Sotheby. Available at: <https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/7-things-you-need-to-know-abstract-expressionism?locale=en> [Accessed 26 December 2021].

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Kishan Thakkar is an architect based in Ahmedabad exploring creative outlets and entrepreneurship. He is an avid learner who has a penchant for research, analysis and understanding different fields within the architecture and aspires to promote sustainable development. Discipline is the key to balance his diversified interest and work routine.