What is Abstract Expressionism?

Abstract Expressionism is renowned for being the first great American Artistic movement that emerged in the post-war art scene of New York in the 1950s – emerging just after the Great Depression. It is recognizable purely through the spontaneous technique the artist employs to create his works, a freedom of expression using colour, shapes and brush strokes to evoke a feeling, the atmosphere of something rather than creating an accurate, realistic depiction of it. As the artist Jay Meuser said of his work Mare Nostrum, “It is far better to capture the glorious spirit of the sea than to paint all of its tiny ripples.”

Abstract Expressionism contains varying degrees of abstraction; from Jackson Pollock’s drip painting, Autumn Rhythm, and Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, which display abstract expressionism at it’s most abstract; to Willem de Kooning’s Woman I, and Robert Motherwell’s Figure with Blots, which demonstrate a more figurative employment of the style.

For most abstract expressionists, the style was about expressing feelings of a spiritual nature, the unconscious, and the mind and doing that as freely, and as automatically as possible.

The Origins of Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism, although an American movement, has it’s roots in Europe (as did many of it’s practitioners – Willem de Kooning was born in the Netherlands and Hans Hoffman in Germany); as it owes a large debt to the influence of Surrealism and the German Expressionist movement. The idea of employing automatic, spontaneous means of creating artistic works was directly linked to Surrealism – with works by Wassily Kandsinky, Joan Miró and Paul Klee providing enormous inspiration; Picasso’s Cubist works were also of great influence to the likes of Hans Hofmann (see The Gate) and Arshille Gorky (The Liver is the Cocks Comb).

Most Famous Abstract Expressionist Painters

Jackson Pollock was Abstract Expressionisms most abstract, producing endless variations of his ‘drip paintings’ in different colours, sizes and contexts; one of his most famous being Number 1, Lavender Mist and Blue Poles. Willem de Kooning’s most famous works are his Woman series – which takes the style of portraiture explored by Picasso during his Cubist period, but removes a lot of the consideration from the way the subject is expressed. Marc Rothko’s colourful, soft, rectangular forms such as Four Darks in Red have become typical of the Abstract Expressioist movement, though he refused to adhere to any movement in particular. Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Gerhard Richter (pictured) were but a few others (and Frank Auberach – though technically not an abstract expressionist, employs many of their methods).