Art Movements Throughout History: Abstract Expressionism

Paint splatter is an example of a technique used in abstract expressionism.


In the early 1940s, the art of abstract expressionism that defied conventions in technique and subject was created in New York by a small band of American painters. This spontaneous art form, characterized by gesture laden vigorous brush strokes, and mark making, taps more into an artists’ emotions and psychology than conventional art. When creating abstract expressionism art, artists value the improvisation aspect they engage in. Abstract expressionism art broke new ground and direction in the art world according to the Metropolitan Art Museum. Abstract artists’ canvasses were filled with fields of many colors which seem untidy and hard to make out by less artistic eyes. These artists viewed abstract art as an adventure into the unknown world of imagination, opposed to common sense.

Initial Abstract Expressionism Proponents

Initial advocates of abstract expressionism art were Jackson Pollock, Willen de Kooning, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, among others. They were influenced by the view that art should be surreal and come from an unconscious mind. Joan Miro, an automatism painter from Spain, was their reference. The success of these abstract expressionism painters in New York eventually eroded that of their traditional Paris counterparts. As a result, America’s dominance of modern art in the international art world began in the post World War II era, according to the Art Story. The war and its aftermath also inspired these artists who saw the dark side of human nature, and sought a creative outlet to express their concerns, through abstract art. After the war ended, surreal artists like Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Fernand Leger, Andre Masson, and Andre Breton immigrated to the US thereby increasing the popularity of abstract expressionism there.


Early foundations of abstract expressionism were laid in the 1930s when European modernism was exposed to New York artists. The city had several venues that exhibited avant-garde art from Europe. The Museum of Modern Art opened in 1929 and had a collection of European art brought in by its first director Alfred H. Barr Junior, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was also the Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art, hosted by the New York University from 1927 to 1943. It had the works of European artists like Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, and Lazar El Lissitzky, which greatly inspired New York’s abstract expressionists. Works of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky credited for popularizing abstract art was also prominent in New York, and exhibited in the Museum of Non Objective Painting opened in 1939. In addition, German expatriate Hans Hofmann was proactive in teaching modern art in the US from Europe.


In the 1940s, abstract paintings from artists like Pollock shocked the audience. In 1947, he had devised a new way of painting by pouring paint on raw canvas spread on the ground and letting it drip. Artists like Kooning also developed a gestural abstract painting style merged with iconic figurative images, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For these abstract expressionists, the authenticity of their paintings lay in its directness and closeness of expression, thereby revealing an artist’s unique identity. From 1943 to the mid 1950s, the boom period of abstract expressionism in New York took place. The art world shifted its art focus from Europe to New York, where the first generation of the expressionism started. The next generation of abstract expressionism artists in Europe and the US were benchmarked against those who started it.


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