Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism is an American modern art movement. It was also known as the New York School, the New American Painting, Action Painting and American-Type painting. This art movement, which primarily manifested through painting, was centered in New York City at the end of the 1940s and continued through the 1950s. Though there are still artists today producing forms of abstract expressionist art. Abstract Expressionist works are categorized as American but the movement was initiated by the work of refugee European Surrealists. Abstract Expressionist artists were strongly influenced by Surrealist art and ideals. Though they rejected realism and the illusions that characterized Surrealist art, they borrowed the idea of art as a vehicle for emotional expression, an 'exploitation of the subconscious'.

Though there are several mediums such as film and sculpture that can be classified as Abstract Expressionist works, paintings embody the style and ideals. David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro write that Abstract Expressionist paintings "...dispensed with recognizable images from the known world. Its surfaces were often rough, unfinished, even sloppy, with uneven textures and dripping paint. Violent, brutal, impoverished, slapdash, it demanded attention yet offered no clue to the nature of the response expected. It had force, energy, mystery, yet its explosions seemed inchoate outpourings of expression to which viewers were provided no key." (p. 1)

One of the main characteristics of Abstract Expressionist art is the use of colour and the variations on how colours should be presented. There was a focus on bold and bright colours in some works and an equally effective trend towards murky and organic tones. Jackson Pollock favoured a painting technique that involved dripping colors over large canvases to create energetic, random patterns. Other artists, such as Mark Rothko whose works are described in later sections, developed 'color-field' painting. This involved applying large bands or muted shapes of subtly modulated color to the canvas. His paintings can easily be described as 'formless, lineless patches of colour'.

Many of the colourful works involved techniques employing accident. This leads to another defining characteristic of Abstract Expressionism. The artistic and creative process makes itself seen to the viewer. It is easy to see the type of utensil used to apply the paint and the shapes and layers define the steps that contributed to the development of the artwork. Many artists also manipulated and abstracted organic shapes and forms to create patterns and strong visual effects.

Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning was perhaps the best known and most influential Abstract Expressionists. As shown in Gotham News, nicknamed after New York City, his most significant achievement was "the synthesis of figuration and abstraction, combined with an aggressive, gestural brushstroke that gave his paintings a rich surface texture and vibrant energy." This painting is abstract because it does not resemble the real world. It is expressionist, because the emotional and subjective aspects of the painting are more important than objective and formal aspects. The colors, crowds, and energy are a subjective view of his home. There are no obvious forms of skyscrapers and yellow taxis in the painting.

The process in which this painting was created is evident in the prints that fades towards the left hand side corners of the painting. De Kooning had been using newspaper to help the paint to dry, and in that process some of the print came off. De Kooning's technique used to create Gotham News has been labeled "action" or "gesture" painting, referring to the fact that the artist’s movements and creation process are clearly evident in the final result. One critics writes that "De Kooning used a number of different sized brushes—some strokes are very wide and others are quite thin. The paint is applied in a variety of ways as well, from very thin passages to thick areas of paint squeezed directly from the tubes. Although it appears as if Gotham News was painted quickly and spontaneously, de Kooning actually thought carefully

about the creation process, often stepping back to consider his next move. The role of accident was important as well, as seen in the unintended newsprint and the way in which the paint was allowed to run in a number of areas."

Gotham News, 1955

oil on canvas, 69 x 79"

Mark Rothko

Red, Orange, Tan and Purple - Mark Rothko

Much of Mark Rothko's art is identified by stacks of colored, soft-edged rectangles that float on the canvas. An art critic wrote that "their colors suggest an infinite number of associations to the natural world in which we are constituent creatures". His style was to paint hazy, 'pulsating' shapes in a vertical or horizontal format. He explained that these shapes ‘have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognises the principle and passion of organisms’. He was also quoted saying "Every shape becomes an organic entity, inviting the multiplicity of associations inherent in all living things". The focus on colour and the use of organic forms are characteristic of Abstract Expressionism.

Red, Orange, Tan and Purple - Mark Rothko



Untitled circa 1951-2

Oil on canvas (Oc)

Rothko was said to have "scaled his pictures so that the viewer is enveloped in their luminous, atmospheric surface." The vertically stacked blocks of colour visually relate to the use of horizon lines and his choice of colours are earthy and organic. The colours themselves are uneven which add a textural quality to the painting and forces the viewer to look into the painting. The process of creating this piece is apparent through the obvious layering of paing and the marks intentionally left by the instruments Rothko used.


Oskar Fischinger Motion Painting No. 1

Mark Rothko Light Red over Black

Fischinger's film and Rothko's painting have many similarities. This painting is similar to Motion Painting No. 1 in that they were both created by the layering of colour on top of colour. Rothko's work seems as though he created one painting and then started to paint on top of it with the red, or with the black, depending on how you see the painting. The painting itself gives the viewer the ability to see the layers and the marks left by the instruments used to create the painting. This aspect of the creative process behind a painting is characteristic Abstract Expressionist works and is much more evident in Fischinger's film. Motion Painting No. 1 documents the growth of a specific painting. Fischinger’s film uses well-defined, brightly colored geometric images and was painted as an experimental work, in order to reveal the "process by which a painting develops".

The two works are also similar in their connection to organic influences. Rothko's soft, floating shapes seem natural and almost human. Fischinger used organic-influenced shapes such as spirals similar to those on shells and snails. The works relate to the real world, without overtly representing structures and realistic images.

The two artistic works also have differences. The most obvious difference is the choice of colour tone. Fischinger used alot of pale and natural colours, though at the climax of the film, the colours become more bold. Rothko use black and red, and though the shapes themselves are softened, the colours are strong and vibrant. Fischinger is also much more mathematical and precise, whereas Rothko prefers blurred forms and bands.

References and Resources

Shapiro, David and Cecile. Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record. Cambridge University Press, 1990.