“It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.” —Jackson Pollock

Abstract Expressionism signaled a new age of American artistic expression in the immediate postwar period (the late 1940s and 1950s). Though never a formal movement or school, “AbEx” grouped together artists—including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, amongst others—with interest in spontaneity, monumental size, the individual psyche, and universal expressions of feeling. Historically, AbEx has been broken into two tendencies: Gestural Abstraction (or Action Painting), which emphasized the energy of the painter’s mark, and Color Field Painting, which focused on the creation of vast, seemingly floating areas of color. The rise of Abstract Expressionism has been attributed to the influence of European movements like Cubism and Surrealism, which reached New York in the 1930s and ’40s via museum exhibitions, academic institutions, and the stateside relocation of many major European artists due to World War II.

Abstract expressionism is a post–World War II art movement in American painting, developed in New York in the 1940s. It was the first specifically American movement to achieve international influence and put New York City at the center of the western art world, a role formerly filled by Paris.

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Summary of Abstract Expressionism

“Abstract Expressionism” was never an ideal label for the movement, which developed in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. It was somehow meant to encompass not only the work of painters who filled their canvases with fields of color and abstract forms, but also those who attacked their canvases with a vigorous gestural expressionism. Still Abstract Expressionism has become the most accepted term for a group of artists who held much in common. All were committed to art as expressions of the self, born out of profound emotion and universal themes, and most were shaped by the legacy of Surrealism, a movement that they translated into a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma. In their success, these New York painters robbed Paris of its mantle as leader of modern art, and set the stage for America’s dominance of the international art world.

Key Ideas

  • Political instability in Europe in the 1930s brought several leading Surrealists to New York, and many of the Abstract Expressionists were profoundly influenced by Surrealism’s focus on mining the unconscious. It encouraged their interest in myth and archetypal symbols and it shaped their understanding of painting itself as a struggle between self-expression and the chaos of the subconscious.
  • Most of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism matured in the 1930s. They were influenced by the era’s leftist politics, and came to value an art grounded in personal experience. Few would maintain their earlier radical political views, but many continued to adopt the posture of outspoken avant-gardists.
  • Having matured as artists at a time when America suffered economically and felt culturally isolated and provincial, the Abstract Expressionists were later welcomed as the first authentically American avant-garde. Their art was championed for being emphatically American in spirit – monumental in scale, romantic in mood, and expressive of a rugged individual freedom.
  • Although the movement has been largely depicted throughout historical documentation as one belonging to the paint-splattered, heroic male artist, there were several important female Abstract Expressionists that arose out of New York and San Francisco during the 1940s and ’50s who now receive credit as elemental members of the canon.

Abstract Expressionism is a term applied to a movement in American painting that flourished in New York City after World War II, sometimes referred to as the New York School or, more narrowly, as action painting. The varied work produced by the Abstract Expressionists resists definition as a cohesive style; instead, these artists shared an interest in using abstraction to convey strong emotional or expressive content.

Abstract Expressionism is best known for large-scale paintings that break away from traditional processes, often taking the canvas off of the easel and using unconventional materials such as house paint. While Abstract Expressionism is often considered for its advancements in painting, its ideas had deep resonance in many mediums, including drawing and sculpture.

America in the 1950s

Abstract Expressionism emerged in a climate of Cold War politics and social and cultural conservatism. World War II had positioned the United States as a global power, and in the years following the conflict, many Americans enjoyed the benefits of unprecedented economic growth. But by the mid-1950s the spirit of optimism had morphed into a potent mix of power and paranoia. Fueled by the fear of Communist infiltration, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin unleashed a series of “witch-hunts” against alleged Communist sympathizers. Any hint of subversion could make an individual suspect. One scholar later reflected: “It is ironic but not contradictory that in a society…in which political repression weighed as heavily as it did in the United States, abstract expressionism was for many the expression of freedom: the freedom to creative controversial works of art, the freedom symbolized by action painting, by the unbridled expressionism of artists completely without fetters.”1

Abstract Expressionist Artists in New York City

Abstract Expressionism marked the beginning of New York City’s influence as the center of the Western art world. The world of the Abstract Expressionist artists was firmly rooted in Lower Manhattan. A walk along 8th Street would take you from the Waldorf Cafeteria, where penniless artists made “tomato soup” from the free hot water and ketchup; past the Hans Hofmann School of Fine artists founded by the painter of the same name; to The Club, a loft where lectures and heated arguments about art carried on late into the night. Jackson Pollock’s studio was on East 8th Street, Willem de Kooning’s and Philip Guston’s were on East 10th, and although Franz Kline moved among various homes and studios in the area, most nights found him and many of his contemporaries at the Cedar Street Tavern on University Place.

Abstract Expressionism and Jazz
Many artists are influenced by the music of their time. Jazz was improvisational and expressive, and several Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, cite listening to the music while painting. Norman Lewis worked in Harlem, a predominantly African American neighborhood in New York City known for its artistic, musical, and literary accomplishments, and he often depicted Harlem jazz clubs in his early figurative works. His later abstract paintings seem to integrate the lyricism and spontaneity of jazz. Comparing his technique with that of legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, Willem de Kooning once wrote: “Miles Davis bends the notes. He doesn’t play them, he bends them. I bend the paint.”