The Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism Art


Before, during and after World War II, a number of European artists fled to New York City. During this period, these artists brought their experience with avant-garde movements such as the surrealism of Salvador Dali and Picasso's Cubism to New York's art scene, resulting in a cross-pollination of ideas that resulted in a new movement dubbed abstract expressionism.

Defining Abstract Expressionism

  • The term "abstract expressionism" was first used by art critic Robert Coates in 1946, in reference to artists Maxim Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. All three of these influential artists are considered abstract expressionists; however, the characteristics of what constitutes abstract expressionism is difficult to define, as these three artists, for example, worked in very different styles. What united the abstract expressionists wasn't a set of rules or characteristics, but rather a philosophy that placed an emphasis on the act of creating art, not the finished artwork itself. Another commonality in abstract expressionism was the artists' desire to use art as a way to express the subconscious,

Jackson Pollock

  • A number of artists were influential in the abstract expressionist movement, but arguably none more so than Jackson Pollock. Pollack's techniques evolved during the 1940s and 1950s, but he remains most identified with his technique of dripping and pouring paint on canvasses he laid on the floor, known as "action painting." In a variation on this technique, Pollock would also mount a canvass on a wall and fling the paint at it.

Mark Rothko

  • Russian-born Mark Rothko was initially influenced by surrealism, but by the latter part of the 1940s he developed his distinctive style. Rothko's work is instantly identifiable, as his paintings consist of large rectangles of different colors that would blend into each other. Rothko's intent was to convey emotion with the colors; by doing away with the figure entirely, the viewer's attention is focused solely on the interaction between colors and the feeling it evokes.

Willen de Kooning

  • Although de Kooning is considered an abstract expressionist painter, his work was both similar and different from that of Pollock and Rothko. For example, de Kooning's paintings usually depicted a form, albeit in a highly abstract manner. However, de Kooning shared Pollock's use of vibrant colors, with wild, broad swaths of paint that seemed to be impulsively, almost violently applied to the canvass. Like Pollock's work, de Kooning's paintings were also known as action paintings.

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