(American) Abstract Expressionism

Click on each artist's name for some examples of their work.

Kooning Pollock Rothko

ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM--An art movement that developed in New York in the years after/during World War II, characterized by the rejection of realism and an emphasis on spontaneous subjective expression.

ARSHILE GORKY--Armenian born American painter who formed the link between European Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. He was very much influenced by Picasso and Cubism.

--The first major art movement to develop in the USA independently of European influence, it had the effect of making New York, rather than Paris, the centre of the modern art world. Because Europe was basically, a war zone and America had not been damaged yet it came time for American artists (who weren't drafted) to take the stage.

--The AEs changed the definition of abstract art from cubist type, distorting reality to raw emotional content that was meant to reach the audiences subconscious by directly evoking an emotional response. Also, the European artists emigrated to NYC which made it all the more attractive to artists & critics alike. This was a large influence on artists in NYC like Pollack, de Kooning, & Rothko because they were actually able to meet the likes of Andre Breton, Leger, & Piet Mondrian instead of just hearing about them and/or seeing their work in magazines.

--The act of painting itself was regarded as more significant than the finished work. AEs focused on the unpremeditated process of painting in order to achieve unpredictable, therefore expressive, results.

WILLEM de KOONING b.1904-1997--Dutch-born artist who came to America in 1926 and met Gorky a few years later who introduced him to the avant-garde of NYC.
--His first exhibition at the Egan Gallery in NYC (1948) established a reputation as an energetic abstract painter similar to Pollock in his use of black-and-white.
--Third exhibition in 1953 displayed his Women series I-VI. Woman I became one of the most reproduced paintings in the US.
--Worked well into his eighties also dabbling in sculpture, but eventually became a victim of Alzheimer's disease & died in 1997.

JACKSON POLLACK--American from California; moved to NYC in 1929 to attend the Art Students League which had no entrance requirements and no set course. For three years he studied under Regionalist artist Thomas Benton.
--In 1942 he was featured in a group exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery. Then was given his own showing the following year. (She Wolf)
--He married Lee Krasner and moved to woodsy Long Island in 1945. During his sober years he was most successful. Being out of the city gave him a new perspective.
--In 1947 he began his technique of 'drip & splash.' Instead of using the traditional easel, Pollock laid his canvas on the floor and poured and dripped his paint from a can (using commercial enamels and metallic paint because their texture was better suited to the technique); instead of using brushes, he manipulated the paint with sticks, trowels or knives’ (to use his own words), sometimes obtaining textured effects by the admixture of sand, broken glass or other foreign matter’.
--Pollock, who vividly described how he felt when working on a canvas laid on the floor: 'I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting ... When I am in my painting, I am not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of get acquainted period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.’

ALL-OVER PAINTING--a style of painting in which the whole surface of the canvas is treated in a relatively uniform manner and traditional ideas of composition-of the picture having a top, bottom, or centre-are abandoned.

--Pollock's drinking habits led to a downward spiral after 1951 and he died in a car accident in 1956.

MARK ROTHKO, b.1903 d.1970--He emigrated to the US in 1913. Dropped out of Yale in 1923 and moved to New York to study at the art Students League under Max Weber (Cubist & primitivist influenced Russian born""), but regarded himself a self-taught painter.
--Began to develop his style around 1947; his paintings feature large rectangular expanses of colour arranged parallel to each other, usually in a vertical format. The edges of these shapes are softly uneven, giving them a hazy, pulsating quality as if they were floating on the canvas. The paintings are often very large and the effect they produce is one of calmness and contemplation.
--Quote: 'I’m not an abstract artist ... I’m not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions-tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate these basic human emotions ... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience as I had when I painted them.’
--Rothko used color for mood and atmosphere, not for construction and balance.
--Despite his successes at painting (MOMA retrospective exhibition,1961) and the money he made from his art as well, he was very depressed and habit-ridden. Bad marriages, drunk, drug abuser, felt misunderstood by critics.
--Before 1950s, his art was bright & colorful; after 1950s, he used more blacks, greys, browns, maroons. Eventually committed suicide in his studio.
--He regarded his fourteen paintings for a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas (now known as the Rothko Chapel), 1967-9, as his masterpieces.



Kingsley, April. The Turning Point: the abstract expressionists and the transformation of American art. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Sandler, Irving. The Triumph of American Painting: a history of Abstract Expressionism. New York: Praeger, 1970.