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Abstract Expressionism: Origins and Influences

Updated on April 7, 2013

Abstract expressionism was a mid-20th-century art movement, centered in New York City, that encompassed a range of nonrepresentational painting styles, some of them revolutionary in technique and most emphasizing the expressive qualities of paint and other media. The term first appeared in 1929 and was used to describe the German-expressionist-derived paintings of Wassily Kandinsky. Its initial use germane to its most widely accepted definition dates from 1946, when New Yorker art critic Robert Coates applied it to new paintings by Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Jackson Pollock that could not be categorized as cubist, expressionist, or surrealist.

The abstract expressionists -sometimes called the New York School- were a loosely affiliated group of artists whose mural-sized abstractions used line and color alone as emotional vehicles. Their paintings ranged in style from object-oriented works by Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, to gestural abstractions by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Mark Tobey, and Bradley Walker Tomlin, to broad expanses of undifferentiated color by Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. Sculptors David Smith, Herbert Ferber, Theodore Roszak, David Hare, Ibram Lassaw, and Tony Smith, as well as photographer Aaron Siskind, were also decisively affected by these developments.


The New York artistic community coalesced initially in the 1930s during the Great Depression, largely through the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA) art programs. Artists exchanged ideas in casual settings such as the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, and in 1948 they established the "Subject of the Artist School," followed by "The Club" (1949) and "Studio 35" (1949–1950), where artists discussed, among other topics, what subjects would be addressed by their abstract paintings. They sought to intensify human experience through introspective art, communicating transcendental, universal values to the viewer.

The evolution of this romantic style was influenced by various factors, including Freud's belief in the power of the individual unconscious, Jung's theory of the collective unconscious, and postwar existentialism. Most important to the style's development was the emigration of major European artists to New York City beginning in the 1930s, including Max Ernst, André Masson, Frederick Kiesler, Matta, Yves Tanguy, and Piet Mondrian, as well as a leading surrealist theorist, André Breton. The surrealists' use of irregular, curvilinear, biomorphic shapes, and their emphasis on automatic techniques—that is, exploiting chance elements and using the hand to draw freely and spontaneously—to create unpremeditated imagery and to generate new subject matter from the unconscious, offered a liberating alternative to representational styles and to the geometric abstraction that heretofore had dominated the American avant-garde.


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