Art History Lab

Unleashing Emotion: The Powerful Legacy of Abstract Expressionism

When we think of art, we often associate paintings with realistic imagery or portraits. But in the mid-twentieth century, a new form of art emerged that challenged traditional ideas about painting.

This is the New York-based style known as Abstract Expressionism. Despite its misleading name, Abstract Expressionism is more than just random brushstrokes on canvas.

In this article, we will explore the characteristics of Abstract Expressionism and how it influenced modern art.

Inaccurate title of Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism is a suitable title for the New York-based style that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. However, it is also a misleading title because it suggests that the artists had no intention or meaning behind their work.

In reality, Abstract Expressionism is a style of painting that is characterized by the use of color and amorphous forms to convey powerful emotions and ideas.

Characteristics of Abstract Expressionist artists

Abstract Expressionist painters are known for their use of colors and amorphous forms to create a forceful visceral expressionism. The artists’ intention was to convey a sense of intensity and spontaneity that was not tied to representational imagery.

This was accomplished through a variety of techniques, including dripping, pouring, and splattering paint on the canvas. Some painters used large brushes to create broad expanses of color, while others used a palette knife to scrape, scratch, and incise the paint to create texture and depth.

Definition and Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism is defined as a style of painting that emphasizes self-expression, intense feeling, and universal ideas. Abstract Expressionist artists sought to create paintings that would express the artist’s emotion, rather than a specific subject or narrative.

The paintings are often described as spontaneous, gestural, and improvisational. In addition, Abstract Expressionism is considered part of the heritage of Surrealism.

This is because the Surrealists also sought to mine the unconscious and explore the depths of the human psyche. However, while the Surrealists used figurative imagery to express their ideas, the Abstract Expressionists used amorphous forms and color to create emotional impact.

Influence of Surrealism on Abstract Expressionist artists

The influence of Surrealism on Abstract Expressionist artists is evident in their fascination with myth and archetypal symbolism. Many Abstract Expressionist painters were drawn to the unconscious as a source of inspiration, and they explored the depths of the human psyche to create paintings that expressed powerful emotions and ideas.

In addition, some artists were influenced by Surrealist techniques such as collage, which involved combining different media to create a new image. This technique allowed artists to create complex, layered compositions that spoke to the complexity of the human condition.


In conclusion, Abstract Expressionism is a movement that emerged in the mid-twentieth century as a response to the post-war climate. Its defining characteristics include the use of color and amorphous forms to convey powerful emotions and ideas.

Although its title is somewhat misleading, Abstract Expressionism is an important style of painting that continues to influence modern art. By exploring the depths of the human psyche, Abstract Expressionist artists created paintings that express the complexities of the human condition, and this legacy continues to inspire artists today.

Impact of political unrest and communism in the 1930s

Abstract Expressionism emerged in the United States in the 1940s but its roots can be traced back to Europe, specifically to the Surrealists who were seeking a new way to approach art. The political unrest in Europe during the 1930s and the influence of communism led many artists to create art that was based on personal experience rather than following a particular style or movement.

This new approach to art paved the way for Abstract Expressionism. Additionally, the economic hardship caused by the Great Depression in America led to a surge in the Regionalist and Social Realist movements.

These movements served as a critique of the dominant art styles of the time that focused on the elitist and the privileged. Instead, Regionalist and Social Realist art celebrated the everyday working class American, reflecting a shift in the political and social landscape.

Transition from figurative to abstract art

During the same period, the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA) also encouraged the production of public art, including murals, sculptures, and paintings, on a monumental scale. This initiative provided a platform for artists to experiment with new styles and techniques, including abstraction.

This transition from figurative to abstract art was further facilitated by the arrival of European modernists to New York, such as Hans Hofmann, a pioneer of Cubism and Fauvism, who became an influential teacher in the city.

Influence of European modernists moving to New York

The arrival of the European modernists marked a new era in the New York art scene. Hofmann’s teachings helped spread the ideas of Cubism and Fauvism to a younger generation of American artists.

This new style was characterized by bright colors, bold lines, and an emphasis on form over subject matter. This style of painting was later adapted by the Abstract Expressionists, who drew inspiration from Hofmann’s approach to color and form.

Contributions of European artists to the New York art scene

Several prominent European artists played an instrumental role in shaping the New York art scene. Salvador Dali, who was known for his Surrealist paintings, collaborated with American Abstract Expressionist artist, Arshile Gorky, and the two artists influenced each other’s work.

Andr Masson, another Surrealist artist, became a central figure in the emergence of abstract expressionism in New York and exhibited alongside Gorky in the 1940s. Andr Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was also an important influence on American Abstract Expressionism.

His visit to New York in 1941 solidified the connection between Surrealism and American Abstract Expressionism. Max Ernst, a prominent European Surrealist painter, also moved to New York in 1941.

His work was characterized by a sense of the absurd, which influenced American Abstract Expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock. Piet Mondrian, a Dutch painter, also moved to New York in the 1940s, bringing with him his distinctive style of geometric abstraction.

His work had a profound influence on American painters, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Both artists were drawn to Mondrian’s use of color and form and adapted these elements into their own work.

In conclusion, the emergence of Abstract Expressionism was a result of various influences such as the political climate in Europe, the WPA initiative, and the arrival of European modernists to New York. These factors created a perfect storm for a new art style to emerge.

The contributions of European artists, such as Dali, Gorky, Masson, Breton, Ernst, and Mondrian, also played a crucial role in shaping the New York art scene and paving the way for American artists to embrace a new kind of art.

Conditions leading to the formation of Abstract Expressionism

The formation of Abstract Expressionism was influenced by several factors, including the art world’s shift towards large-scale abstract painting. Clyfford Still, who was one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, was known for creating large paintings that were devoid of any recognizable imagery.

His paintings were characterized by bold colors and sweeping brushstrokes that seemed to encapsulate a sense of vastness. The prominence of Abstract Expressionism also coincided with the aftermath of World War II, which left many artists disillusioned and seeking a new direction.

The movement’s aesthetic of spontaneity and gesture was seen as a rejection of the rigid structures of society and a free expression of the subconscious.

Styles within Abstract Expressionism – Color Field Painting and Action Painting

Color Field Painting, as exemplified by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, focused on large areas of flat color that were meant to create an emotional response in the viewer. The paintings were devoid of any recognizable imagery, Instead, the color itself became the subject matter.

The paintings were meant to evoke a sense of emotion and spirituality in the viewer. On the other hand, Action Painting, as exemplified by Jackson Pollock, was characterized by the physicality of the painting process.

The paintings were created with a sense of spontaneity and free gesture, with the artist often using unconventional tools like sticks or even his body to create the work. The paintings were meant to call attention to the process of creation, rather than the final product.

The works were an expression of the artist’s emotional state and the subconscious. Analysis of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm

Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm is a seminal work of Abstract Expressionism.

Created in 1950, it features Pollock’s signature drip technique, which he developed by placing the canvas on the floor and dripping or pouring paint onto it from above. The painting is free of any recognizable objects or figures and is considered a non-objective work.

The composition of Autumn Rhythm is an all-over one, meaning that the canvas has no focal point and instead is filled with a complex web of gestural lines and drips. The painting’s earthy colors are meant to evoke the feeling of autumn, with hints of yellow and red intermingled with blacks and browns.

Evaluation of Willem de Kooning’s Excavation

Willem de Kooning’s Excavation is another important work of Abstract Expressionism. Unlike Pollock’s non-objective approach, de Kooning’s work refers to recognizable shapes, albeit in a highly abstracted manner.

The painting is characterized by sweeping, curvilinear forms, which suggest the profiles of figures or faces. However, these forms are broken down and reconstructed within the painting in a way that makes them difficult to decipher.

The painting’s complex forms and allusions to recognizable shapes are typical of de Kooning’s work during this period, which saw a transition from a more figurative style to an entirely abstract one. Excavation is considered one of de Kooning’s masterpieces and a testament to his ability to transcend genre and create work that was both visually compelling and emotionally expressive.

In conclusion, Abstract Expressionism was a diverse art movement that embraced a wide array of approaches and styles. The movement’s embrace of spontaneity, gesture, and process led to the creation of some of the most innovative and groundbreaking works of art in the twentieth century.

The analysis of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm and the evaluation of Willem de Kooning’s Excavation exemplify the range of styles and techniques that were used by the artists of this movement to create works that continue to resonate with audiences today.

Impact on subsequent art movements

The impact of Abstract Expressionism on subsequent art movements cannot be overstated. One notable movement that emerged in the 1960s as a direct response to Abstract Expressionism was Lyrical Abstraction.

Artists associated with this movement, such as Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell, built upon the expressive and spontaneous qualities of Abstract Expressionism but infused it with a more lyrical and poetic sensibility. The emphasis shifted towards the exploration of colors, forms, and emotions, creating works that were introspective and evocative.

Another significant movement influenced by Abstract Expressionism was Hard Edge painting. Artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella sought to strip away the gestural quality of Abstract Expressionism and focus on geometric shapes and clean lines.

Hard Edge painting was characterized by crisp, defined edges and bold, flat areas of color. This movement represented a departure from the emotional and subjective nature of Abstract Expressionism towards a more formal and objective approach.

Additionally, Abstract Expressionism paved the way for Post-Painterly Abstraction, a movement characterized by its emphasis on formal qualities and the exploration of non-gestural techniques. Artists associated with this movement, including Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler, pushed the boundaries of abstraction, experimenting with color, shape, and surface.

Post-Painterly Abstraction built upon the advancements made by Abstract Expressionism, expanding the possibilities of abstract art even further.

Continued inspiration from Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism continues to inspire and influence contemporary artists to this day. One movement that emerged in the late 20th century, known as Neo-Expressionism, drew heavily from the emotional intensity and gestural approach of Abstract Expressionism.

Artists like Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat embraced a raw and expressive style, often incorporating text and cultural references into their work. They reinvigorated the use of gesture and created large-scale, bold paintings that epitomized the spirit of Abstract Expressionism.

Another artist who draws inspiration from Abstract Expressionism is Cecily Brown. Known for her energetic and visceral paintings, Brown’s work reverberates with the force of the Abstract Expressionists.

Her use of bold brushstrokes, vibrant colors, and dynamic compositions evoke a sense of movement and emotion, reminiscent of the spontaneity and intensity of the Abstract Expressionist painters. The legacy of Abstract Expressionism is not only found within specific movements and artists, but also in the broader cultural influence it has had.

The movement challenged conventional notions of what art could be, pushing boundaries and opening up new possibilities for artistic expression. It paved the way for a greater acceptance of non-objective art and expanded the definition of painting.

Abstract Expressionism has left an indelible mark on the art world, continuing to inspire artists to explore their own inner landscapes and push the boundaries of what is possible within the realm of abstraction. In conclusion, the legacy and influence of Abstract Expressionism on subsequent art movements and contemporary artists cannot be overstated.

The movement’s impact can be seen in the emergence of Lyrical Abstraction and Hard Edge painting, as well as the continued inspiration it provides for artists like Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Cecily Brown. Abstract Expressionism has opened doors and expanded the possibilities of art, and its influence continues to shape and inspire the art world to this day.

In conclusion, Abstract Expressionism emerged in the mid-twentieth century as a response to political and social upheavals, and it continues to shape and inspire the art world. Despite its misleading title, Abstract Expressionism represents a groundbreaking movement that challenged traditional artistic conventions and emphasized self-expression, intense feeling, and universal ideas.

The movement’s influence can be seen in subsequent art movements such as Lyrical Abstraction, Hard Edge, and Post-Painterly Abstraction. Moreover, Abstract Expressionism has had a lasting impact on contemporary artists, with figures like Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Cecily Brown drawing inspiration from its raw emotion and dynamic approach.

By pushing boundaries and expanding the possibilities of abstraction, Abstract Expressionism leaves a powerful legacy, reminding us of the transformative power of art and its ability to express the depths of the human experience.

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