A Movement in art Known as Abstract Expressionism

The art movement known as Abstract Expressionism took place from around the time of the end of World War II and began to fade around the 1950s-1960s when Pop Art began to gain attention. The most famous artists from this movement included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning. Abstract Expressionism was born from the preceding art movement of Surrealism. In the previous movement of Surrealism, artists strived to produce art from their subconscious in a mostly positive context (Encyclopedia).

Artist from this movement were heavily influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud (Encyclopedia). Surrealist artists practiced during the period between the two World Wars. When the Second World War broke out in Europe, several top Surrealist artists fled to America where they settled mostly around New York (Encyclopedia). As World War II ended, the art movement known as Abstract Expressionism emerged.

As most of the main artists of the Abstract Expressionism movement were located in or around New York, it was sometimes referred to as the New York School (MoMA).

These artists practiced during the period right after World War II and as the Cold War began. “This term designates not an organized movement but the work of a wide range of loosely affiliated artists active in the 1940s and 1950s bound by a common purpose: expressing their profound social alienation in the wake of World War II and making art that was both moral and universal” (Stokstad). The social climate in a post-World War II America went from a sense of triumph and pride to a time of paranoia as the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation set in.

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The artists of the Abstract Expressionism movement found freedom in their works as they created “controversial works of art” and found “freedom symbolized by action painting, by the unbridled expressionism of artists completely without fetters” (MoMA).

The Surrealist artists in Europe found their motivation to allow their subconscious to drive their creativity from Dr. Sigmund Freud, these newer American artists looked to the work of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung to influence their work (Stokstad). “His theory of the ‘collective unconscious’ holds that beneath one’s private memories is a storehouse of feelings and symbolic associations common to all humans” (Stokstad). Much of the pieces created during this period have deep symbolic meaning that requires knowing of the artist’s life to understand the deeper meaning placed within the work. Art from this time is “often characterized by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity” (Tate).

The most recognizable action painting artist of the Abstract Expressionism period was Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Suffering from alcoholism for much of his adult life, Pollock worked with a Jungian analyst for three years prior to World War II (Stokstad). Little progress on his personal issues, but resulting from this therapy he developed new skills and ideas to apply to his art. He began to experiment with different mediums of paint and methods for applying the paint onto the canvas. Pollock was famous for placing his canvases on the floor and dancing around them while either pouring paint from the can or flinging it expressively with a brush or stick (Tate). An “influential critic Clement Greenberg described Pollock as ‘the most powerful painter in North America” in 1947 (Stokstad). Pollock’s life ended early when he died in car accident in 1956. Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was one of the most notable color field painters of the Abstract Expressionism movement. Rothko was of Russian/Jewish descent and was born in Russia before World War I.

His family immigrated to the United States from Russia in the 1910s, and he always resented his father for forcing them to leave their homeland. Throughout his life, Rothko suffered from extreme depression, alcoholism, and trauma that he related as stemming from the traumatic childhood he endured with immigration and the death of a parent at an early age. After experimenting in his painting, he “devised his signature style of stacked chromatic rectangles or ‘multiforms’, as they were sometimes called, in his mid-forties”. Rothko’s pieces were often painted on extremely large canvases. He explains why in the following statement: “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However, you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It is not something you command”. His paintings were often shown “together in a series or rows and illuminated indirectly to evoke moods of transcendental meditation. By 1969, Rothko was suffering from a myriad of chronic medical conditions including: advanced coronary artery disease, cardiac arrhythmias, and an inoperable abdominal aortic aneurysm. He committed suicide on February 25, 1970 in his studio after “ingesting a large amount of Sinequan and chloral hydrate”.

Works Cited

  1. “Abstract Expressionism – Art Term.” Tate, Tate Galleries, www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/abstract-expressionism.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica. “Surrealism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 Nov. 2018, www.britannica.com/art/Surrealism.
  3. Hamilton, James W. A Psychoanalytic Approach to Visual Artists. Routledge, 2018, ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy197.nclive.org/lib/wilkescc-ebooks/reader.action?docID=887963&query=mark rothko.
  4. “MoMA Learning.” MoMA, MoMA, www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/abstract-expressionism/.
  5. Stokstad, Marilyn, and Michael W. Cothren. Art: A Brief History. 6e ed., Pearson, 2016.

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