On Abstract Expressionism

I see evidence of the profound impact of Abstract Expressionism every day. Right now there’s even a trend in fashion that echoes the movement! And yes, I have already purchased a multicolored shirt that fits right in to the trend. A ton of books, movies, paintings, designs, and even performances follow the fundamental aspects of the movement. Yet despite this, Abstract Expressionism has been met with so much resistance. The phenomenon is baffling to me. So many of my conversations with people about art happen the same way… Usually people begin by saying that they absolutely love Impressionism, and that the Renaissance was really inspiring. This always becomes a natural segway into an explanation about their profound hatred modern art because it’s filled with splotches and splattered paint. If the person I’m speaking with has young children then typically they’ll say something like, “Maybe if it didn’t look like something my untalented three year old created then I’d love it.” Ok, ok, they never say their child is untalented, but forgive me if it becomes a little tiresome to hear the same line over and over again. In an effort to avoid this type of conversation I thought it might be useful to explain a few fundamentals. Hopefully with this background people will no longer be tempted to throw up a (gasp!) re-sized miniature Rothko poster just because it matches the couch. And if you do actually do decide to do that, then in the very least you’ll be able to explain the work to little Timmy and recognize that, while his work is absolutely delightful, it may not exactly constitute the same level of skill. :) Here are a few tidbits of trivia and advice to consider when looking at these paintings; I hope you enjoy them and that they help when trying to discover the meaning of this work!

  • Let’s begin with invoking a little bit of patriotism since Abstract Expressionism is considered the first American avant garde movement. This is important because this movement helped define New York as an artistic epicenter. To this day New York has the most impressive collections of paintings from this movement. MOMA and the Met’s collections will literally make you swoon, or in my case tear up out of shear excitement.
  • There were political catalysts that spawned this movement. All of the artists involved survived World War II, and this traumatic event not only forced relocation stateside but also because people were disillusioned with reality and needed a nonrepresentational, visual break from the stresses of war.
  • The theory that the movement is based on is Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious,” this is why the works are relatively unplanned before they are executed. This is also why viewers were asked by artists to respond intuitively rather than through a structured conscious that relates to historical visual ques.
  • Aesthetically the movement owes a lot to cubism in that there is shallowness to the composition and a focus on frontality. Cubism paved the way for this, and allowed artists to eliminate or reinterpret conventions about space and perspective.
  • To determine whether you’re looking at an Abstract Expressionist painting look for some of the following things: lack of focus and depth with little or no perspective, an emphasis on the act of painting, gestural and rapid brushstrokes, energetic and spontaneous application of paint or pigment, an innovative use of commercial or household paints, expansive scale, a sensitivity to color placement, and either severe abstraction of imagery or a canvas that is nonrepresentational.
  • The term “action painting” has survived the art history test of time and is typically used in descriptions. The phrase itself was coined by Rosenberg when describing De Kooning’s Woman series. Incidentally, DeKooning is the only Abstract Expressionist that famously represented the human form (in a somewhat frightening way).
  • There are two types of abstract expressionist painters: Gestural Abstract Expressionists and Chromatic Abstract Expressionists. As you might guess, the former has energetic and expressive application of paint whereas the latter focuses on the emotional impact of color.
    If you’re looking at one of these works it is typically advised that you do so close to the canvas. This is because the shear monumental size of the painting is part of the point; you’re supposed to almost feel swallowed by the work. This is also why buying a re-sized reproduction is virtually a sin! I can personally attest to the importance of size, and will openly swear that the canvases at the Rothko Chapel looked as if they were moving when I stood near the surface. ;)

    Check out some of the most famous examples of Abstract Expressionism below…

Lavender Mist, Jackson Pollock

Woman I, Willem De Kooning

Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Barnett Newman

Green and Tangerine on Red, Mark Rothko


Becka @Studio222 Photography said...

I really love paintings like this. This is one style of art Nate and I agree on because we are both influenced by the big canvases of colors. I guess that means we like the Chromatic Abstract Expressionists the best. :) We found a new-ish artist we both really like. I think Nate was telling you about her. For some reason I'm drawn to the red paintings too, which is weird because I usually like really neutral tones surrounding me.