The abstract expressionists were mostly based in New York City and the name encompasses their aim to make art that was abstract but also expressive or emotional. They drew heavily from surrealism and the idea that art should come from the unconscious mind. Within the field of abstract expressionism, there were two primary groups; the so-called “action painters” and the “colour field painters”.
The action painters were led by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who worked in a spontaneous improvisatory manner, often using large brushes to make sweeping gestural marks. They seemingly attacked their canvases with expressive brushstrokes that led to spontaneous and loose paintings. They were very liberal with their art style and weren’t afraid of flouting traditional methods of art-making. For example, Pollock famously put his canvases on the ground and danced around it, pouring paint from the can or trailing it from the brush or a stick. In this way, the action painters directly placed their inner impulses onto the canvas.
The second group included Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. They were deeply interested in religion and mythology and created very simple compositions with large areas of colour. Hence the name “colour field painters”. Their artworks were intended to produce contemplative or meditational responses in the viewers. In an essay written in 1948 by Barnett Newman, he says “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or “life”, we are making it out of ourselves and our own feelings.” This approach to painting developed from around 1960 and was characterized by artists using large areas of more or less a single flat colour.
Despite all of this, the term “Abstract Expressionism” was never an ideal label for the movement. It was somehow meant to encompass the works of both fields of artists above. Still, it has become the most accepted term for the movement. All artists in the movement were committed to art as expressions of the self, born out of profound emotion and universal themes. They were highly successful and came at a time when the world was recovering from World War 2. In their success, these New York painters robbed Paris of its mantle as the leader of modern art and set the stage for America’s dominance of the international art world. They saw art expressionism as a struggle between self-expression and the chaos of the subconscious.
With many Europeans fleeing the Nazi invasion, America saw a surge of Surrealist artists on its shores. As the tide of Fascism arose in Europe in the 1930s, these major Surrealist figures sought refuge in New York City. The impact of their ideas, techniques and themes cannot be underestimated in the formation of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s. Much like the surrealists, the Abstract Expressionists shared a belief that the canvas was a place where the human mind could unload its subconscious. At a time where many were grappling with the darker potential of human experience, this was a welcome change from off the wall art and Impressionism. The Abstract Expressionists shared the belief that abstract art could communicate deeper, more universal truths than naturalistic painting or sculpture, which would typically retain some sort of culturally defined message. Beyond any formal advances made by their movement, Abstract Expressionism came to represent the capacity for freedom in artistic creation.