Arthistory Essay

Abstract Expressionism is one of the most notable artistic movements that appeared in the 20th century and flourished until nowadays. Artists used their experience gained in previous artistic movements and combined various styles for the reflection of their visions and ideas. Abstract Expressionism is some kind of the transition from anxiety and uncertainty due to the political, social and economic commotions before World War II to drinking to act of society during the war and in the post-war period. This paper discusses the formation and flourishing of Abstract Expressionism and its influence on the establishment of New York as the world center of the artistic life.

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Serge Guilbaut described Abstract Expressionism as “freedom symbolized by action painting, by the unbridled expressionism of artists”. This artistic movement arose from the feeling of independence and necessity of surmounting of hurdles of American people in the pre-war and post-war period. It should be noted that this movement encompasses painters and artists who created their abstract works by using unique combination of colors and techniques in order to express their inner world and feelings. The major themes of Abstract Expressionism were universal or emotional. Artists used various styles for the expression of their inner world, ideas and views. Drip painting and action painting were used for the visualization of immediate emotions. Tremendous fields of colors enveloped the audience. Abstract Expressionism is the kind of the intensely personal artistic movement that is more concerned with the showing of the act of creativity than with the traditional representation.

This movement was closely connected and shaped by Surrealism that flourished on the territory of the USA after World War II. European Surrealist artists provided the aesthetic and intellectual background of the formation of the New York School. Notwithstanding the fact that each of the representatives of this artistic school had different reaction on the political, economic and social events in the world and various reflection of personal ideas, all of the New York School artists were at the similar stage of the personal development in a particular time and location. In his work Abstract Expressionism, Justin Wolf described one the most notable characteristics of this style as “the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma”, because it was formed under the influence of post-war sentiments that existed in the U.S. society. Some of the researchers believe that the roots of this movement were in the figurative painting that was introduced in the 1930s. Numerous artists who represent the epoch of Abstract Expressionism were greatly influenced by Regionalist movement and Social Realism. Both of these directions were formed during the period of the tremendous economic downfall in the USA. This downfall is well known as the Great Depression.

Regionalism in the American art was represented from 1930 to 1935. Artists who used this style “shunned the city and rapidly developing technological advances to focus on scenes of rural life” Social Realism was the artistic movement that created the background to both Regionalism and Abstract Expressionism. This style expressed such global issues of society as racial conflicts, rise of fascism, and revolutionary optimism of the moods of people at the time of the Great Depression from the 1920s to the 1930s. In their works, artists showed the life and struggles of the lower and the working classes. They reflected personal rejection of the capitalist exploitation. Additional attention should be paid to the governmental initiatives directed at the minimization of the negative consequences of the economic downfall and supporting common Americans who lost their working places. The development and realization of the job and relief programs, for example, the Works Progress Administration helped many artists to start their career. In addition, painting of murals on various political themes gave rise to the creation of abstract monumental works.

In the middle of the 1940s, the combination of described artistic styles and the great influence of considerable political and social disruptions facilitated the formation of a new style – Abstract Expressionism. The development of the new movement was grounded on the “artists’ desire to find a content rich with meaning and redolent of social responsibility”.

The additional emphasis should be made on the fact that the artist who lived in the beginning of the 20th century had free access to galleries and museums with numerous exhibitions that contained works of modern art. These people were greatly influenced by Cubism and Abstractionism, which reflected in the paintings of Picasso and Kandinsky. One of the most prominent painters who had great influence on the formation and the development of Abstract Expressionism on the territory of the USA was Hans Hoffmann. The German painter left the Bauhaus and moved to North Carolina to become a teacher in Yale University because Fascism spread its influence in Europe. His unique style was represented by the fusion of various models. Among other notable artists were Andre Breton, Andre Masson, and Max Ernst. It is notable that immigrant brought to the USA not only some sort of the European style and experience. These people brought their sufferings from totalitarian regimes that gained momentum before World War II. These feelings gave rise to the great desire of artists “to take the helm of advanced culture at a time when some of its oldest citadels were under threat”. This desire reflected in the art is widely recognized as American – Type Painting.

In addition, it should be mentioned that the development of Abstract Expressionism was closely connected with the immigration of artists from the territory of European countries particularly to New York from the 1930s to the 1940s. These people escaped the war and political upheaval in their neighborhoods. In the beginning of the 20th century, New York represented some kind of a melting pot of various artists full of ideas and expressions. The situation exasperated after the commencement of World War II. Artists were deeply troubled by the dark sides of human soul, irrationality, and atrocities of war. Their impressions were reflected in the works by using more aggressive style and darker colors. Many European artists, for example, Salvador Dali, Piet Mondarin, Brenton, and others were obliged to seek refuge on the territory of the USA. Their move to the USA increased the influence of their ideas on the American artists. That is why, during the periods of the intensive immigration, New York emerged as one of the most important cultural centers in the Western part of America. Immigrants settled in this big city because they thought they would face fewer problems in finding the job and being recognized by the broad audience. Due to the considerable concentration of Abstract Expressionism artists in this city, their works are referred to the New York School. This school represents the informal group of painters who lived in the city before and after World War II. Both European immigrants and Native Americans represented this movement on the territory of the USA. It is notable that this movement became the first specifically American tendency that spread and influenced artistic views of representatives of various countries all over the world. New York became recognized as the center of the art. The influence of Abstract Expressionism on views of artists all over the world was so considerable that the city replaced Paris as the reflection of the creativity and avant-garde art.

All of these factors created the background for the formation of a new movement in art that started in the late 1940s. The drip technique appeared in works of Jackson Pollok only in 1947. It is notable that Pollok by himself considered his technique as the reflection of personal unconsciousness. At the same time, he stressed the fact that he controlled himself during the creation of works: “no chaos, damn it!”

The works of Abstract Expressionists represent the balance of control and impulse. This combination can be found in other paintings of artists who lived and worked in New York such as Kine, Motherwell and William de Kooning. They used vigorous gestural style of movement for the combination of Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. They used the innovative technique of dropping of paint on canvas. These actions reflected the immediate expressions of painters’ identity and views. In the same time period, Mark Rothko started to work on his multi-worm paintings that only began his maturity. The formation of the movement was completed by the boycott of 18 artists at the exhibition of contemporary works that took place at the Metropolitan Museum and their posing for the Life magazine. It is notable that the whole movement of Abstract Expressionism was closely connected with some rebels and troubles. The paintings brought the house down and, at the same time, gave rise to social indignation and misunderstanding. Sharp criticism and extreme censorship were not recognized by artists because they considered that there nothing in paintings to criticize. 

The later development of Abstract Rationalism is closely connected with the Surrealism and Freudian symbolism that appeared and flourished on the territory of Western Europe. Many artists were affected by mythology and primitivism because they enabled expression of deep personal feelings and understandings through visualization of common and uncommon objects. This affection was reflected in interpretation of ideas of Carl Jung. The Swiss Psychiatrist thought that the group unconsciousness could be propagated through generations by using various archetypal symbols. The enthusiasm of Jung’s ideas facilitated transition of the artistic idea from Surrealism of Picasso to Abstract Expressionism. For example, Mark Rothko started his career with experimentation with abstract symbols of the 1940s. Based on gained experience, he moved “towards abstract fields of color”.

Another direction of Abstract Expressionism was reflected in Existentialism.  It was brightly represented in the works of artists of that time, because it “contributed to the rhetoric of anxiety and alienation which pervaded discussion”. Expressionism was reflected in the presentation of movement or action directed at gaining of freedom or formation of personal path, instead of banal analysis, reproduction or statement of fact. The reflection of this style in works of artists of the middle of the 20th century shows their personal desire to play an active part in the formation of their social and political life. The importance of the artist’s creative process and the influence of the personal views of representatives of various classes became greater. However, it should be mentioned that the nature of Abstract Expressionism enabled each artist to develop personal style and to have the unique influence on the audience.

During the description of Abstract Expressionism, some attention should be paid to the ideas of formalism expressed in the works of Clement Greenberg. This art critic made the stress on formal properties of art – color, line, space, and so on. In the same time, he facilitated the promotion of the idea of Color Field Painting. This tendency of Abstract Expressionism differs greatly from other tendencies of this movement such as action painting and gestural painting. It was represented in the 1940s by such artists as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman. They used the abstraction for the representation of their ideas in the mythological, expressive, and, at the same time, modern manner. Their works were characterized by more or less flat single color paintings on large areas. Mark Rothko, who immigrated to New York from Russia, was widely known for his technique of composition of several rectangular forms vertically. Barnett Newman, who was born and who lived in New York during all his life, used rectangular figures with sharp edges interrupted by zips (precise vertical stripes). The visualization of not just abstract, but primal images, reflected “society’s collective unconsciousness”. These paintings did not only express personal emotions or thoughts. Artists tried to show the universal truths about the human being and the nature of things. In his work When It Pours, Peter Schjeldahl stated that artists who used Color Field Painting technique had the aim to reach purely optical effects. Karen Wikin described the considerable role of this tendency in the whole Abstract Expressionism: “the conviction that the role of art was not to report on the visible, but to reveal the unknown”. That means that the artists who worked in the middle of the 20th century directed their views not only at the existing political and economic issues, but also at the description of unexplored matters.

It should be noted that Abstract Expressionism was greatly influenced by the political views after World War II.  The time of the Cold War is characterized by cultural and social conservatism. Involvement into one of the biggest military conflicts in the history positioned the USA as the one of the strongest powers in the world. At the same time, the level of life of Americans considerably increased. This gave rise to the establishment of the optimistic spirit of independence supported by the understanding of the country’s might. Abstract Expressionism in the post-war period became the art that expressed freedom of society. The distinctive style of this movement served as the representation of the American democracy, cultural achievements, and individualism. The artist became not just the person who reflected the outer world and visualized it on the canvas. The artist became the person who had the considerable influence on the views of the broad audience by galvanizing society to take necessary actions.

In conclusion, it should be noted that this work provides the description of the formation of Abstract Expressionism under the influence of the political and economic situation in the world. Immigration of the tremendous amount of European artists to New York was stipulated by their search for freedom and peace. The governmental initiatives directed at the rectification of the consequences of the Great Depression helped artists to start their career. Various European and American movements and philosophic ideas formed the views of young artists. All these events created the background of the establishment of the unique form of art – Abstract Expressionism and the establishment of New York as the world center of the artistic life. Abstract Expressionism included various styles: gestural style, action painting, and Color Field Painting. At the beginning of its formation, this artistic movement reflected the social anxiety and uncertainty. People felt confused by the political and economic instability in the world and the rise of fascism. In the course of time, Abstract Rationalism became the movement that reflected not just observation of events, but also pushed people to act. Artists intended to bring the understanding that people could play an active part in the formation of their lives. The finals stage of the development of Abstract Expressionism reflected the feelings of freedom and consciousness that flourished on the territory of the USA after World War II.

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