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Abstract Expressionism: Rise in America

Updated on December 8, 2014

"Police Gazette" by Willem de Kooning


After the devastation of the Second World War, artists, like many people, experienced a sense of loss and disillusionment in the old systems and forms of expression. In an effort to redefine their view of the modern world, these artists, building off of the ideologies expressed by both Surrealist and Dada movements, began experimenting with new methods of depicting the post World War II era.[1]

Artists who created abstract expressionist works were either known as gestural painters or color-field painters, which were the two main categories of abstract expressionism. Despite the differences in each of the two categories and their complexities, this new art was fueled by the artists belief in art’s ability to evoke powerful and meaningful emotions in the viewer.[2] While many abstract expressionist artworks were painted after World War II, there are only a few artists that stand out and remain an icon for the works they produced.

"Woman V" by Willem de Kooning


Two of the most well known action painters or gestural artists are Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Gesture painting is well-known for its lively and unbalanced compositions that are created from spontaneous brushwork.

For these gestural artists, the canvas was “an arena in which to act,” and the image on the canvas was “not a picture but an event.” These ideas drew chiefly on the existentialist philosophy of the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sarte, whose statement “there is no reality except in action.” Willem de Kooning is known for his suggestive and emotional works and was undoubtedly one of the most central figures of Abstract Expressionism.

By using thickly applied paint and dark lines, he is able to render a highly abstracted image, while still maintaining a very distinctively modern and expressive power. Most famous for his series paintings of women, which represented woman as a sex symbol and fertility goddess, de Kooning is the quintessential example of gestural Abstract Expressionism in which the hand of the artist and his emotion are intrinsic part of the painting.[3]

The series was controversial and most saw them as raw and violent. The misery and resentment reflected in most Abstract Expressionist work was noted as being a result of all emotional upheaval surrounding World War II.

"Autumn Rhythm" by Jackson Pollock


"The Key" by Jackson Pollock

By the 1950s Jackson Pollock had become an international symbol of post World War II art. Framed for his development of the drip-painting style, Pollock’s work epitomizes the gestural style.

H.H Arnason, author of the History of Modern Art, states, “one can trace the movements of the artist’s arm, swift and assured, as he deployed sticks or dried-out brushes to drip paint onto the surface.” With no true descriptive function, the splatters, drips, and stings of paint all result in a unified, luminous image that seems to move beyond the plane of the canvas.[4]

Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, best demonstrates this type of action or gestural painting. For most artists, the process of painting was just as important as the final result, as they were expressing themselves on canvas.

These artists relied not on events in the world outside of the studio but, rather, on the inner turmoil of the individual acted out on the canvas. In 1951, American painter and leading figure of Abstract Expressionism, Clyfford Still, wrote: “When I expose a painting, I would have it say here I am: this is my presence, my feeling, myself.”[5]

Looking at Jackson Pollock

While gestural artists used their body movements to create abstract art that was meaningful and expressive, color field artists used color as their method of manifestation. Color field painting began in 1950 following the initial shock of gestural painting. Artists would apply bright colors in amorphous or geometric shapes that would overlap or blur together so there was no sense of a foreground or background.[6]

This emotion felt by the viewer would come from the arrangement of colors and shapes, which were the subject. Magenta, Black, Green, on Orange, by Mark Rothko, illustrates this style of painting. Although there are many artists who represent the style of color field painting, Mark Rothko stands out as the epitome of this subdivision of Abstract Expressionism.

Rothko established a specific style in which he would paint color rectangles floating on a color ground. By utilizing various washes of oil paint he was able to create tonal variations and blurred edges that resulted in a luminous, shifting qualities. Color field painting was an achievement admired in the 1950s and 1960s as the purest kind of painting,one unaccompanied by subject matter, illusionism, or even gesture.[7]

"Magenta, Black, Green on Orange" by Mark Rothko


Adolph Gottlieb was another very popular color field artist and while he used color and irregular shapes in his artwork, one could not help but notice his influence from primitive artwork and Greek myths.

While Abstract Expressionism had its roots in Surrealism, the color field artists were concerned with the primal unconscious, archaic myths, and the irrational. Mark Rothko also used such inspirations and influences for his works.

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia is probably his most popular work that demonstrates him using ancient Greece as his motivation. Both artists created meaningful pieces that related modern day America to ancient Greece. One piece for which Gottlieb is most known for is the Eyes of Oedipus, which draws from the mythological story of King Oedipus killing his father to marry his mother.

In line with Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious as the bridge between antiquity and the modern age, both artists envisioned their myth paintings as timeless and universal; the violence in them was a reenactment of the ancient struggles caused by the same passions that united and divided all of humanity.[8]

Both artists communicate Greek myths and the classical past by using images of universal irrational emotions.

"Eyes of Oedipus" by Adolph Gottlieb

"Sacrifice of Iphigenia" by Mark Rothko

"Eyes of Oedipus" by Mark Rothko

While abstract art might lack a recognizable subject, it did not have to give up content. The artists drew upon diverse philosophies, myths, Freudian and Jungian psychology, and even the symbolism of native peoples. The resulting works were rich with meaning.

As Rothko stated, these artists, “favored the simple expression of the complex thought.”[9] Russian painter and art theorist, Wassily Kandinsky, analysis on the sensory properties of color had a major influence on color field artists. Color field painters evoked emotion out of their viewer by tapping into their unconscious.

In the 1940s, Adolph Gottlieb wrote: “Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean, and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind, certain so-called abstraction is nor abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.”[10]

Following the upheaval of the Second World War artists were using abstraction and color as a new approach to their artwork in response to the distortion of the age.

Former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Beverly Hale, declares that if the art deals with weird dreams, it is because we have opened the caverns of the mind and let phantoms loose. If it is filled with broken shapes, it is because we have watched the order of our fathers break and to pieces at our feet. If our art seems violent, it is because we have perpetrated more violence than any other generation. The artist is in part a prophet. We should not complain if the shadows that have lately haunted us have for some time been visible upon his canvas.[11]

Despite the controversy and boldness of such artworks, these artists became leaders of the movement of Abstract Expressionism and redefined abstraction in a whole new way.

Their artworks were raw, spontaneous, and daring, and as a result, they advanced America far ahead of Europe artistically. It was the first American movement to achieve worldwide influence and also one that put New York City at the center of the art word.[12]

In Conclusion: What is Abstract Expressionism


[1] Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art vs. Academic Art: online, Internet, 23 March 2011. Available:

[2] After World War II: online, Internet, 23 March 2011. Available:

[3] After World War II: online, Internet, 23 March 2011. Available:

[4] Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art vs. Academic Art: online, Internet, 23 March 2011. Available:

[5] Frances K. Pohl, Framing America: A Social History of American Art (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2008) 451

[6] Art History Resources for Students, Enthusiasts, Artists and Educators: ( online, Internet, 3 April 2011. Available:

[7] Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art vs. Academic Art: online, Internet, 23 March 2011. Available:

[8] Frances K. Pohl, Framing America: A Social History of American Art (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2008) 451

[9] After World War II: online, Internet, 23 March 2011. Available:

[10] Frances K. Pohl, Framing America: A Social History of American Art (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2008) 451

[11] Hunter Museum of American Art: online, Internet, 21 March 2011. Available:

[12] Oil Painting Reproduction (, 1997-2007) online, Internet, 21 March 2011. Available:


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