Thursday, October 29, 2015

Lesson # 4 - Abstract impressionism: the first Art Movement born in the U.S.A.

Discuss the following questions with your partners:

a) Why might an artist choose to paint abstractly instead of representationally depicting figures, shapes, objects, or scenes?
b) What kinds of choices do you think artists make when painting?
c) What kinds of materials and techniques does an Abstract painter use?
d) How can you express emotion in an entirely abstract drawing?

e) What words would you use to describe Jackson Pollock's painting?
f) How would you describe the lines in it?
g) What kind of gestures or movements do you think Pollock made to make this painting? What do you see that makes you think that?

h) What kinds of shapes do you see in this work by Helen Frankenthaler?

i) Based on what you see, what gestures or movements do you think Frankenthaler made?
j) Do you think Frankenthaler’s and Pollock’s paintings are governed by chaos or control? Support your answer.

k) How would you describe this painting?
l) How has De Kooning chosen to represent this woman?
m) How is "Woman, I" similar to or different from these other representations of women?



Abstract expressionism is a post–World War II Art movement in American painting, developed in New York in the 1940s. It was the first specifically American movement to achieve international influence and put New York City at the center of the Western art world, a role previously filled by Paris. The term "Abstract expressionism" was first applied to American art in 1946.

Abstract Expressionist painters explored new ways of creating art, reinvigorating and reinventing the medium. They changed the nature of painting with their large canvases, energetic and gestural lines, and new artistic processes. Many artists experimented with nontraditional materials, such as commercial paints and housepainter’s brushes. Artists also developed new techniques to apply paint, such as moving the canvas from the easel to the floor and working on unstretched and unprimed canvas. With these unconventional ways of painting, the Abstract Expressionists searched for new forms of self-expression and personal freedom in their work.

Like the Surrealists before them, many Abstract Expressionist painters were interested in psychoanalysis and the theories of Carl Jung, who identified certain myths indicative of what he called a collective unconscious. In the 1940s, artists like Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock believed that they could use universal symbols to evoke certain emotions in the viewer.

Characteristics: The Two Styles

In simple terms, the Abstract Expressionism movement encompassed two broad groupings. These included: (1) the so-called "action painters" such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning who focused on an intensely expressive style of gestural painting; and (2) the more passive "color-field" painters, notably Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, who were concerned with reflection and mood. That said, it is not always easy to draw a precise line between these two types of Abstract Expressionism, and several artists contributed to both.

1) Action Painting

In 1947, Jackson Pollock - supported by his wife Lee Krasner (1908-84) - developed a radical new technique which involved dripping paint onto a canvas laid on the ground. Pollock worked in a highly spontaneous improvisatory manner, famously dancing around the canvas pouring, throwing and dripping paint onto it. By doing this, he claimed to be channelling his inner impulses directly onto the canvas, in a form of automatic or subconscious painting. 

Pollock's paintings smashed all conventions of traditional American art. Their subject matter was entirely abstract, their scale was huge. This was because, for these Abstract Expressionists, the authenticity of a painting lay in its directness and immediacy of expression: in how the artist conveyed his inner impulses, his unconscious being.

In short, Pollock (and others) abandoned all the traditional concepts of composition, space, volume and depth, allowing the flatness of the picture plane to become the main important feature of his creations. Not surprisingly, the paintings caused a sensation. The New York Times art critic John Canaday was highly critical, but Clem Greenberg proclaimed abstract expressionism in general and Jackson Pollock in particular, as the best painting of its day. 

Although Willem De Kooning is also grouped with Pollock in the highly charged active type of Abstract Expressionism, his works are different both technically and aesthetically. His violent and sinister Women series of six paintings (1950-3), exemplify his figurative style, although he also produced more abstract works. However, like Pollock, De Kooning was a strong believer in the idea that an artist acted out his inner impulses, and that something of his emotion or state of mind could be read by the viewer in the resulting paint marks. "I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things into it – drama, anger, pain, love... through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or an idea."

2) Color Field Painting

Evolving a little bit later than action-painting was a second style of Abstract Expressionism, which became known as Color Field Painting. It emerged as several important artists in the USA in the late 1940s and 1950s were experimenting with the use of flat areas or fields of color to induce contemplation in the viewer. They were very much on the passive wing of the Abstract Expressionist movement, in contrast to the agitation of Pollock or De Kooning, though it is hard to draw a definitive dividing line between both movements. The work of these artists was on a very large scale.

The impulse behind Color Field painting was reflective and cerebral, characterized by simple imagery designed to create emotional impact. A type of highly colored minimalism, their style aimed to liberate the artist from all the effects of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, and myth that have been used in Western European painting. Rothko's soft-edged rectangular shapes of glowing color aimed to envelop the viewer and produce a semi-religious emotional experience. Like Pollock and the action-painters, color field paintings were executed on a monumental scale for optimum impact. Rothko said, "I paint big to be intimate."

The most distinguished of these color-field painters was Mark Rothko. He has been described as the chief exponent of the "American Sublime". He first showed in 1929 and by about 1940 was working in a Surrealistic vein. By 1947, however, he was evolving the formula to which he was to remain faithful for the rest of his life. This formula, though generally interpreted on a monumental scale is almost simple. Mark Rothko's paintings typically show two or three horizontal or vertical rectangles of different colors, varying in width or in height, on an even colored background. The rectangles are filled with color, which is washed or stained with shifting tones and luminous intensities, and their edges blur into soft-focus. This blurring of edges makes the color seem to float. So powerful and intense is the impression of mysterious radiance flooding from these great canvases, that viewers themselves can also experience a floating sensation.


The first generation of Abstract Expressionist artists flourished between 1943 and the mid-1950s. They had a major impact on the reputation of American painting, leading to the establishment of New York as the centre of World Art. By the 1960s, the main effects of Abstract Expressionism had been completely absorbed, although its themes and techniques continued to influence later artists from a variety of different schools, including Op Art, Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Neo-Expressionism, and others.

Answer the following:

1) Why does Abstract expressionism represent a relevant movement in the history of American art?
2)What makes Abstract expressionism unique?
3) What connection is there between Abstract expressionim and Psychology?
4) How is Action painting different from Color field painting?
5) What do you understand by "Gestural painting"?
6) Find similarities and differences between De Kooning's and Pollock's artworks. Why do you think they were labeled in the same style?
7) What kind of emotional impact do you think Color field painters wanted to achieve in the viewers?
8) Explain Rothko's quote: "I paint big to be intimate".
9) What do most Rothko's artworks have in common?
10) Which art movements developed from Abstract expressionism? Find out some brief information about them online.

Decide if the following statements are true (T) or false (F). Provide evidence when false:

a) Abstract expressionists basically applied identical art techniques from those of their predecessors.
b) Pollock's style involved lots of planning before applying paint to the canvas.
c) Many Abstract expressionists added depth and dimensionality to their artworks.
d) Both Action and Color field painters used unusually large surfaces to create their artworks.
e) Color field painting preceded Action painting.
f) Rothko kept his typical style throughout most of his artistic career.