Abstract Expressionism in the 20th Century

Abstract Expressionism in the 20th Century

A New York-based art movement that emerged from the 1940s to 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was by far the most unconventional art style of the time. This art movement was born of profound emotion and symbolic meanings, and the majority were influenced by its predecessor, Surrealism, a movement that they transformed into a new form suitable for the post-war mood of depression and trauma. It broke the laws of form and subjects, characterized by the use of colors to create abstract, often indescribable forms. At the time of its development, this movement was never really liked. In fact, it was not considered as art because of its lack of finesse and beauty. Art used to be about aestheticism and depiction of human nature. But in the case of modern art, particularly Abstract Expressionism, it was different. Art became a method of gestures and expression of emotions through forceful application of pigments in the canvas. The depiction of beauty was no longer the core of making paintings, rather, it became a mode of self-expression. Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rotho, and Jackson Pollock reinvented the way we create, analyze, and look at paintings forever.

Abstract Expressionists, also known as The New York School, was a small group of artists in the 1940s that were bound to dismantle the core of art forever. This group shifted from the focus on beauty to a more radical form that used to be described as “unappealing” or at worst, ugly. This movement encompassed a wide range of painting styles, each with its own unique technique and level of representation. Despite their diversity, Abstract Expressionist paintings have a few common qualities. They frequently employ elements of abstractions through representing symbols that are exaggerated and, or, at the extreme, structures that are not taken from the observable world which makes the artwork unrealistic. They promote unconstrained, spontaneous, and individualized expression, and they use a great deal of method and flexibility to achieve this purpose, with a special emphasis on utilizing the varied physical aspects of paint to elicit dramatic characteristics. 

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Towards the Formation of Abstract Expressionism

The movement's origins may be traced back to 1930s figurative art. Almost all of the artists who went on to become "ab-ex" painters in New York in the 1940s and 1950s were affected by the Great Depression, and they matured while painting in styles influenced by the Regionalism and Social realism movements. The difficulty was that the two major art movements at the time, Regionalism and Social Realism, were unable to fulfill their demand for a departure from contemporary thought. They were heavily affected in this by the advent of a large number of contemporary artist refugees from Europe, whose progressive approach to art opened up plenty of creative possibilities. These European artists, such as Hans Hoffman, were largely influential to the formation of abstract expressionism in New York. 

It bolstered their dedication to an art form founded on individual perspective. Time spent painting murals inspired them to produce abstract art on a similarly large scale later on. Rather than depicting figures recognizable by the human eye, they demonstrate the rejection of traditionally organized compositions composed of separate and separable pieces in favor of a single unified, undifferentiated image existing in disorganized space. Moreover, the paintings occupy vast canvases, lending majesty and compelling force to the visual impressions.

Perhaps one of the biggest influences of this art movement is Surrealism, an earlier art movement prior to the emergence of this one. Surrealism had a unique impact on the thought conception of the Abstract Expressionism movement. Although the American artists were uncomfortable with the European movement's explicit Freudian symbolism, they were attracted by its studies in the subconscious, as well as its element of primitive fascination with myths. Both of these movements focus on the subconscious mind that is thought-provoking. The only difference is that the surreal uses objects and figures recognizable by the human eye. 

Two Main Styles of Abstract Expressionism

This art movement encompasses several styles that are difficult to distinguish from one another. However, two main styles emerged during its early development, particularly Action Painting, and Color Field. 

  1. Action Painting:

    The main feature of this art style is the expressive, often emotional, drips of painting all over the canvas. This is distinguished by a free, hasty, fluid, or energetic application of paint in slashing or sweeping brush strokes, as well as technique driven in part by accident, such as pouring or spilling paint straight into the canvas. Jackson  Pollock, credited as the inventor of this art style, originally experimented with Action painting by pouring commercial paints over blank canvas and assembling complicated and twisted patterns of paint into a thrilling and provocative linear manner. This method of painting results in subjective and impulsive results.

    Another popular artist for this art style was Willem de Kooning, whose paintings were characterized by rich colors, expressive brushstrokes, and textured images. Although De Kooning and Pollock are both associated with the "energetic" form of Abstract Expressionism, his works are both physically and artistically distinct from Pollock's. His violent and ominous Woman series of six paintings (1950-3), depicting a  female figure, epitomized his figurative approach, while he also created abstract pieces.  De Kooning, like Pollock, was a firm believer in the concept that a painter performed out his inner impulses, and that the audience might read something of his mood or frame of consciousness in the resultant paint strokes.

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  2. Color Field:

    The second art style is Color Field, a less energetic, and passive style in the Abstract Expressionism movement which emerged during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Key figures of this art style were Mark Rothko, Bartnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. Painters of this style experimented with the use of flat patches or landscapes of color to encourage reflection in the spectator - even to the point of mystical intensity. The biggest triumphs of ab-ex were frequently founded on a clash between disorder and stability. It could only be carried out in a limited number of techniques. Some painters, such as Newman and Rothko, had developed a style that was so minimalist that there was little potential for growth - and changing direction would have reduced the brilliance of their powerful trademarks.

    In general, the drive was analytical and philosophical, with graphic techniques streamlined to generate a type of fundamental effect. The Color field painters spoke of a desire to create the "divine" rather than the "wonderful," making reference to Edmund Burke's ambition for the big, grandiose vision as opposed to a soothing or reassuring impact. Perhaps the most iconic painter of this style was Rothko, the premier color-field painter, with the majority of his works consisting of huge compositions of delicate-edged, boldly colored image blocks that really makes the viewer wonder about its meaning.

Final Insights

During the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism had a significant effect on both the New York school and European art landscapes. Indeed, the trend signaled the postwar relocation of the artistic center of contemporary art from Paris to New York City. The paintings were extensively viewed in touring exhibits and in magazines. Following Abstract Expressionism, new generations of artists all over the world were strongly influenced by the previous era's achievements, and went on to produce their own significant expressions based on, but not a mimicry of, those who developed the philosophy, style, and techniques of this art movement.

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