A diverse range of Abstract Expressionism art produced during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s shifted the centre of the art world from Paris to New York for the first time in art history.
However, abstract expressionism differs from other art movements in that the artists who are identified with it did not come together as a group to express similar ideas and approaches to painting.
Although they all lived in New York and knew each other, for each of them painting was a highly personal means of self-expression and that was their primary concern. They did not see themselves as being part of an art movement unified by common aims. The process of making art was what really mattered.
In the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the turmoil of the Second World War, these artists were searching for a visual language that would express their feelings about a world that had become darker and more complex. Jackson Pollock commented in an interview in 1950:
It seems to be me that the modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.
For the New York based artists, abstract art enabled them to express more powerfully their responses to the times in which they lived. They did not seek to be labelled or to form a cohesive group. Instead, it was the art critics of the day who coined the label ‘abstract expressionists’. They saw a common thread running through the work of these artists.
Art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote in 1952:
“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act – rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
The wave of pre- and post-war European immigration during the 1930s and early 1940s brought an influx of artists who would make a major contribution to the development of this new style. These were artists who had lived and worked through art movements such as Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism and the Bauhaus.
Artists such as Hans Hofmann, Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers and Fernand Leger brought with them a wide range of experiences and techniques which they passed on through their own work and through teaching. The merging of these two major cultures, the European and the American, in the melting pot of New York resulted in more and more collections of abstract expressionism art appearing in galleries throughout the city, prompting critics to give it a collective label and thus identify a new movement.
Hans Hofmann was a central figure in the evolution of abstract expressionism art. Having lived in Paris between 1904 and 1914, his early career spanned Cubism, Fauvism and Expressionism . Hofmann promoted a fusion of the Cubist and Fauvist styles at his New York art school during the 1930s. He advocated the use of color and form to express the world and encouraged his students to paint in abstraction but always with close reference to the object they were looking at.
His teachings were a major influence on the work of many of the abstract expressionists of the time. Lee Krasner was a pupil and she in turn introduced her husband, Jackson Pollock, to Hofmann. Other pupils included Frank Stella and Helen Frankenthaler.
The Surrealists, led by Andre Breton, introduced the New York artists to automatism, a process whereby the artist abandons any conscious control of the painting and allows the unconscious mind to guide the hand to create the art work. This proved to be a liberating technique for many of the artists, particularly Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock.
With the development and growing popularity of abstract expressionism art, a whole new generation of artists known collectively as the New York School (artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, among others) were on course to achieve world-wide influence.
These painters ‘enacted’ their emotions and responses to the world onto the canvas. Their canvases were large and their brush-strokes bold, rhythmic and energetic, reminding the viewer that we are all part of something greater, something beyond our reality, a universal truth.
The style of their work can be divided into two categories: ‘action painting’ which was gestural, bold, energetic (Pollock, De Kooning, Kline) and ‘color field painting’ which used expanses of color to convey a more reflective approach to the world (Rothko, Newman, Still).
By the mid-1950s, abstract expressionism art was being exhibited across Europe as well as the United States and was firmly established in terms of popularity and market value.
Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Franz Kline (1910–1962), Lee Krasner (1908–1984), Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), Mark Rothko (1903–1970), Barnett Newman (1905–1970) and Clyfford Still (1904–1980)