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What Is Abstract Expressionism?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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Abstract Expressionism, also known as the New York School, was a modern art movement that developed in the late 1940s in reaction to the aftermath of World War II. The Abstract Expressionists theorized that the human unconscious was a conduit for creating art. These artists focused on aesthetics, or the philosophy of beauty, to express human emotion and tap into the human unconscious. Painting styles within Abstract Expressionism can roughly be divided into two categories: Gestural and Color Field.

World War II created social upheaval and afterward many artists felt as if the earth had shifted beneath them. Some artists thought that a new, revolutionary form of art was needed to reflect the postwar condition and its effects on humankind. Many of these artists emigrated from Europe to the US after the war. Their artistic influence merged with that of American artists, and the financial and cultural power of the art world shifted in the late 1940s from Paris to New York.

Abstract Expressionist artists had a somewhat self-absorbed approach to making art. They felt that turning inward to their subconscious emotions and foregoing realistic expression was the only road to developing a new form of art that would influence the world. In the end, they were partially right. Abstract Expressionism did influence the world. Many people initially laughed at Jackson Pollock, who dripped and threw paint onto the canvas, but eventually “Jack the Dripper” was taken seriously by the art world.

Portraying reality was not a focus in Abstract Expressionism; these artists concentrated instead on the elements of art, including line, shape and color. Most Abstract Expressionist art was non-objective, meaning that the art did not represent anything in the physical world. One abstract painter, Willem de Kooning, differed in this regard since he often painted women. For the most part, these paintings were not very flattering, and most of the women had frightening grimaces.

Both Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were Gestural painters within the Abstract Expressionist movement. In Gestural painting the artist’s brushstrokes appeared highly animated. A certain amount of physical energy was required to create these paintings. This is especially the case with Pollock who would lay canvas on a floor and drip or throw paint. His huge paintings, some of which took up the entire wall of a museum, could have a profound effect on viewers.

Color Field painting was more serene, and color was the dominant element as the name of this style of painting implies. Barnett Newman was one of the best-known Abstract Expressionist artists who practiced Color Field painting. His paintings were often large canvases painted with one background color and thin horizontal stripes in other colors. Sometimes the color in Newman’s paintings was so intense that the paintings appeared to vibrate.

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