What Is Abstract Expressionism?

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Abstract expressionism was the first great American avant-garde art movement that took place shortly after world War II, the most well-known abstract expressionist being Jackson Pollock. Experience abstract expressionist art, which is displayed in museums around the country, with information from an art historian, critic and curator in this free video on art.

Part of the Video Series: Modern Art History
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Video Transcript

Hi, I'm Dr. Betty Brown, and now, I want to talk to you about abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism was the first great American avant-garde art movement. It began shortly after World War II. Right around 1950's a good beginning date. And it was stimulated by the presence in New York City of many European avant-garde artists -- cubists, futurists, and particularly, surrealists -- had moved to New York to flee Hitler as he marched across Western Europe. And they found themselves living together and in the midst, these young American artists were inspired by all their advances. Perhaps the most and the best known abstract expressionist is Jackson Pollock. We, art historians, like to call him Jack the Dripper. Jackson Pollock rolled the canvas across his studio floor. Canvas is just a densely woven cotton fabric. He would roll it across his studio floor and he'd take a can of house paint and a stick and he'd dance his brush strokes across the surface of his canvas. He did this to express, he hoped, his inner psychological self. Indeed, you can think of abstract expressionism as a way of acting out the unconscious archetypes. Pollock was actually in union psychoanalysis as he began to do this, and Time Magazine did a feature on him asking, "Is this the greatest living artist in America?" And I think the answer was probably yes, at the time, because he was so famous and so innovative in such a celebrated way. But his action paintings were not the only kind of abstract expressionism. I think my favorite abstract expressionist is a guy named Mark Rothko, who did lovely, subtle, quiet, indeed, meditative paintings that kind of shimmer blocks of color across big canvases. If you want to see some really powerful and impacting Mark Rothkos, you should go to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. It's set up like a zen meditative room and you can quietly take in the power of his abstract expressionist painting.


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