Abstract Expressionism is a movement in American painting that was developed in the 1940s and 50s. Work painted in this style is characterized by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity.
Let's take a closer look at 7 artworks from Jackson Pollock to Helen Frankenthaler...
PH-972 by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum
1. 'Watery Paths (Sentieri ondulati)' by Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was a major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement. His most famous paintings came from his drip period, which rocketed him to fame. Painted between 1947 and 1950, he used to place the canvases flat on the floor which allowed the artist to “walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting”.
The process of dripping, pouring and splattering allowed Pollock to combine chance and control. The emotional turbulence is palpable when studying his works up close.
Watery Paths (Sentieri ondulati) by Jackson PollockLa Galleria Nazionale
2. 'Untitled' by Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was another central figure of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism, though he refused to adhere to any art movement. He adopted an abstract aesthetic to express basic human emotions like tragedy, ecstasy and doom. Having gone through several styles, Rothko’s multiforms, which first started out as a series, are what he’s become known for. In these works the artist gets rid of figurative forms and focuses purely on large expanses of color.
This painting, Untitled is a large scale mural and one of the first of many for the artist. Its horizontal position is unusual as Rothko tended to prefer a vertical format. Rothko intended viewers to experience his work in close proximity and the extended format of Untitled expands beyond the observer’s lateral field of vision, allowing the painting to seemingly open up and engulf the viewer.
Untitled by Mark RothkoGuggenheim Bilbao
3. 'Villa Borghese' by Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning was a Dutch artist who moved to the United States in 1926 and became an American citizen in 1962. He is often cited as the originator of Action painting, an abstract and instinctive form of painting, yet De Kooning most often worked from reality, primarily from figures and landscapes.
Towards the end of the 1950s, the artist turned towards landscapes as the basis for a series of abstract compositions. This painting titled, Villa Borghese, was based on the artist’s encounter with Rome, where he spent 5 months living in 1959. As well as the title, he alludes to the location through the bright, mediterranean colors used throughout. De Kooning’s interpretation of Abstract Expressionism sees him layer swatches of vibrant hues on top of each other and offer the viewer a purely subjective translation of a landscape.
Villa Borghese by Willem de KooningGuggenheim Bilbao
4. 'Scene with Blue 6' by Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting and was an Abstract Expressionist painter. As an active painter for nearly 6 decades, the artist went through several phases and stylistic shifts. Overall though, she is identified by her use of fluid shapes, abstract masses and lyrical gestures. Throughout her career, Frankenthaler placed an emphasis on spontaneity and once said: “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once”.
This painting titled Scene with Blue 6 sees the artist merge paint and canvas to create a sense of movement and flow. Frankenthaler invented the “soak-stain” technique in 1953 and it saw her make diluted oil paints saturate raw canvases. In this work she adapted the process by adding dynamic lines and spatters, which adds spontaneity.
Scene with Blue 6 by Helen FrankenthalerChrysler Museum of Art
5. 'PH-129' by Clyfford Still
Artist Clyfford Still is credited with laying the groundwork for Abstract Expressionism with his shift from representational to abstract painting occurring between 1938 and 1942, years earlier than his peers Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
Still’s non-figurative paintings are abstract and are largely concerned with juxtaposing different colors and surfaces in various formations. Unlike Rothko, who organized his colors in a simple block format, Still adopted a less regular approach. Instead he created flashes of color that looked as though layers had been torn off the painting to reveal other vibrant colors underneath. This style can be seen in the painting below, titled PH-129, where burnt ochre is sliced by stormy grays and pale lavender on a small canvas.
PH-129 by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum
6. 'Zinc Yellow' by Franz Kline
American painter Franz Kline is recognized as one of the most important yet problematic artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York. His style is difficult for critics to interpret in relation to his contemporaries because of the subtleties within his works. While he was also an adopter of Action painting, Kline often referred to his compositional drawings while making artworks. So unlike his peers, the artist’s works were only meant to look like they were done in a moment of inspiration. Instead though, each painting was extensively explored before his brush even touched the canvas.
In this painting, called Zinc Yellow, jagged black and yellow brushstrokes appear spontaneous. In fact, the painting is the result of careful planning and has a small oil study counterpart that was created first.
Zinc Yellow by Franz KlineChrysler Museum of Art
7. 'Passage' by Philip Guston
Painter and printmaker Philip Guston was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist like Franz Kline, although he preferred the term New York School. During this period in the 1950s Guston’s paintings, as seen in the work below, consisted of blocks and masses of gestural strokes and splotches of color floating in the frame. The artist used a relatively limited palette and favored black, white, gray, blue and red.
Later in his career during the 1960s, Guston helped lead a transition from Abstract Expressionism to Neo-Expressionism in painting. Neo-expressionists returned to portraying recognizable objects and abandoned so-called “pure abstraction”. Guston developed a more representational, cartoonish style which saw him render symbols, objects and his personal life into his works.
Passage by Philip GustonThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston