Abstract Expressionism; The First Uniquely American Style.


Abstract Expressionism coalesced as a distinctive style in the 1940′s in New York City. This is a style that I personally relate to deeply, and has been a major influence on my own work. The primary, first wave of these practitioners, are some of my favorite painters. The term, Abstract Expressionism, was first used to describe the work of Wassily Kandinsky in the ’20′s. ” The movement’s name is derived from the combination of emotional intensity of the German Expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of European abstract schools such as Futurism, the Bauhaus and Synthetic Cubism.” The more immediate initial visual progenitors, however, were Hans Hoffman and Arshile Gorky. (Over time, I will profile many of the artists you are about to see, individually. Their legacy is what I consider to be, a long string of one gorgeous painting after another.)

Hoffman (left) was one one of the most influential art teachers of the 20th century. He had his own school in Germany, and in America, where he emigrated in 1932. He briefly taught at The Art Students League. His students form a veritable “who’s who” of painters of the 50′s and 60′s. His abstractions are masterpieces of “pictorial structure, spatial illusion, and color relationships.” Everyone was influenced by his work. The same is true of Gorky, whose biomorphic, surrealistic abstractions, flowing paint and use of unconscious symbolism, affected all who came after. Andre Breton called “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb,” done in 1944, (above, right) ” one of the most important paintings ever made in America.”

When most people think of “Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting,” they think of Jackson Pollock. There has rarely been a painter who is both so loved and reviled, at the same time. For me, it was love at first sight.

Pollock revolutionized painting and modern aesthetics. He broke down the tradition of easel painting and hierarchical pictorial structure by painting on the floor so he could work all around a piece, and cover the canvas, uniformly, in total abstraction. He poured paint, threw it, dripped it, splattered it, squirted it, and drew into it with hardened brushes and sticks. Pollock used not just his hand and wrist, but his whole body, in what was really, a dance in his application of paint. He said that he felt like he was, literally, “in” the paintings as he worked, in some form of a trance. His style became known as ‘Action Painting.” Pollock studied at The Art Students League under Thomas Hart Benton. But his real influences were Picasso, the Mexican muralists, (especially David Sequieros, who taught at the League and took him to a seminar on different ways of applying paint) as well as the Surrealists, particularly in terms of “Automatism” as a more direct link to the unconscious. Automatic writing, pioneered by Gertrude Stein and automatic painting, which was employed by the Surrealists, was an attempt to get at non-conscious material, to find new images, combinations and even words that sprang direct from the subconscience. The Hungarian-American Janet Sobol’s drip like paintings were another influence. The critic Harold Rosenberg said that Pollock transformed painting into an existential event. But it was the critic Clement Greenberg, who championed Pollock as the ultimate painter of his time, and Abstract Expressionism as the inevitable evolution and purist expression in the history of painting.

Standing in front of one of Pollock’s huge paintings, one is transported to what feels like an inside view of the universe . There is a feeling of huge space, but also flatness. Most gripping, however, is the sense of deep structure amidst the chaos. In fact, mathematicians have said that the patterns in Pollock’s paintings approach the level of fractal organization. These paintings feel monumental, not just in their scale, but also in their intent.

If Pollock sits on the throne, only slightly lower, by his side, was the great Willem de Kooning.

De Kooning was both a superb draughtsman and colorist. All of his contemporaries were in awe of his sheer talent. His abstractions are full of beautiful forms. Through out his long career, even as he suffered from Alzheimers, he continued to create incredible work. He’s one of those rare artists who seems incapable of a false move or brushstroke. Even his doodles have an elegance and beauty that is irresistable.

Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Clyfford Still were also key members of the first wave.

Kline, top left, painted dramatic black and white pieces that always had a very architectural feel and a deep sense of space.

Motherwell, top right, was focused on the Surrealist use of “automatism” to break through to unconscious sources of imagery. He was an articulate critic in his own right, and was a valuable spokesman for ” the New York School,” as they were also called.

Clyfford Still, above, created jagged, colorful images, that always evoked, for me, natural, almost tectonic forces at work. All three were prolific leaders of the movement. Part of the group gravitated to what became known as ” Color Field” painting. First among those as a bridge between the two hands, was Mark Rothko.

I’ve already done a post about Rothko, who is one of my favorite painters. His quest was always to find the spiritual through his art. He was a huge influence on those who came after as well as on his contemporaries.

Another key Abstract Expressionist whose work I love is Helen Frankenthaler. I have always thought of her as a synthesis of Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko. She has an incredible sense of color, form, and structure. She was really the leader of the “Color Field” group. Her “soak stain” technique was to have huge ramifications. I’m planning to do a whole post on her, so I won’t give too much away now.

This painting, called Mountains and Sea, from 1952, really launched her career. It was over 7 feet by well over 9 feet. Frankenthaler was influenced by Hans Hoffman and Pollock, but I see a lot of the tradition of Gorky in her work as well. She pioneered what became known as the ‘ soak stain” techinque, letting heavily diluted, liquid paint soak into unprimed canvas.Her work often has the fluidity of watercolor. What unites her painting over a very long and prolific career, is that it’s all gorgeous.

Among other “color field” painters of particular note were Adolph Gottlieb, Morris Louis and Barnett Newman.

Gottlieb spent several years living in the desert in Arizona. That Western feeling of light, intense sun, and space are hallmarks of his paintings.

Morris Louis and Barnett Newman, below, were both influenced by Frankenthaler’s stain paintings.

Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife, was an influential artist in her own right. Although she struggled, being in the shadow of her lionized husband, they shared an artistic give and take that was fruitful for both of them.

Below a painting by Krasner and the two of them together at their Long Island residence, in Springs, in the town of East Hampton.

Abstract Expressionism and it’s adjunct of Color Field painting both sprang out of this incredibly fertile period that developed in New York in the mid 40′s and throughout the 50′s. These large, dramatic canvases, were painted with an ” all over” approach, where the hierarchical structure of the center was no longer more important than the edges. Paint was deployed as if for battle, and the act of painting itself took on a heroic, life and death intensity. Whether one is a fan of the style or not, it’s influence on all subsequent art and aesthetics, is undeniable. For me, this period created an avalanche of artistic excitement which I still feel today. It also produced countless paintings that I really love and have given me some of my deepest experiences of art.

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26 Comments on "Abstract Expressionism; The First Uniquely American Style."

  1. Helen says:

    My heroes! Thanks for this post. I have been lucky enough to see all of the artists’ works mentioned above at galleries and in museums. Have you seen the DVD, “Painters Painting?” I watch it frequently. This is my favorite art…can never see enough and see something new in it every time.

    • David Leeds says:

      It’s my favorite stuff too, Helen. And I love that dvd! I am always finding something new as well, each time I see their paintings, no matter how many times I
      ‘ve seen them before, which is part of it’s gigantic resonance for me.

  2. Ulf Skei says:

    Great article, and it helps that it treated my favorite painters and styles…
    Just perfect!

  3. Kathy says:

    Didn’t know about “automatism” before this post. Very interesting. So much to think about here, and the paintings are totally gorgeous!

  4. Noel says:

    Your posts are so refreshing. Thank you.
    It’s amazing to see how far painting evolved and moved in a relatively short time. To have been a part of this is unimaginable!

  5. Jodi says:

    Thanks for this great synopsis of such a profound movement for art. Really enjoyed the read. I am deeply influenced by many of these ground breaking painters. I bow down to their talent, chutzpah and brave use of paint!

  6. excellent post these colors are singing and swaying across the canvass. how well the space is captured with shapes and movement beautiful post and thank you for mentioning lee krasner she is one of my favorites, of course jackson is truly brilliant,his work never stops inspiring me. im so glad to read this. an other great job done by husk of meaning bravo.

  7. Jim Felice says:

    All artist that really appreciate very much. One overlooked abstract expressionist is Charles Schucker. I was honored to know him, he was a great mentor. He was a close friend of Morris Louis. His work can be seen @ http://www.charlesschucker.com

    • David Leeds says:

      I had never heard of him, and just looked him up. Nice work. There were obviously a number of other well known artists that were part of the group and produced significant and beautiful work. For the purposes of length, here, I focused on the core group that I knew well, and admired greatly.

  8. metscan says:

    An interesting review of abstract expressionism. Well done, David.
    My approach towards paintings in general, is a simple one. I try to visualize how a certain painting would fit in a certain surrounding. A painting needs the right set-up. Woh, how. This reveals the amateur towards arts in me.
    I found two interesting paintings. The first one is the first picture shown, the one by Hoffman. Strong colors, no movement. In general, I am somewhat shy about colors.
    The other one would be the top left one, by Pollack. The colors remind me of one of our antique Oriental rugs.

    This is how my mind works. Had I an empty space, I´d build the interior to compliment the paintings.

    • David Leeds says:

      I agree Mette, that in an ideal world, I would also love to model my space to fit lots of art. I’ve been drawn to museums and galleries ever since I discovered the visual art at university. The environment you see a painting in, absolutely effects your experience of it. One of the good things about modern art that is done in large format, on big canvases, is that it is generally hung with enough space around it. One of the problems in many museums is that art is often jammed in too closely from one piece to the next. Anything of quality is better with enough space around it to breath.

    • Kathy says:

      The Jackson Pollock painting you like, is one of my all time favorite paintings. I could build a house around it.

  9. Kathleen Fennessy says:

    David…very nice summary of all the greats! Frankenthaler is a particular favorite of mine,too.Not quite sure ,though, what you mean by Clement Greenberg…championed Pollock as the “penultimate painter” of his time…who was the last then? Perhaps you mean he championed Pollock as the “ultimate” painter of his time…for which one could certainly make the case!

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks for catching that error. I’m not the best proofreader. It’s one of my favorite periods of painting. It’s really when I came of age, artistically, and intellectualy.

  10. Susan Tiner says:

    I love Pollock and de Kooning but Pollock more. SFMOMA has a Pollock it is always a pleasure to visit and view.

    Thank you for introducing the other artists, I didn’t know about any of them.

    Nice to see Metscan here, one of my favorite bloggers.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard