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.
Now that we have covered the good extent of art history, it is time to look at the modern developments of art. Modern art typically refers to late 19th and early to mid-20th-century art. Work during this time showcases the artist’s interest in re-imagining, reinterpreting and even rejecting aesthetic values of preceding styles. We have already covered some of the first styles to emerge under the modern art umbrella so we will be looking at the more recent developments. It is important to not confuse modern art with contemporary art. Contemporary art refers to the art of today, produced by artists who are living in the 21st century. Although there are many interchangeable factors to the two, most people consider the following genres of art to be within the modern art family.
Abstract Expressionism is the term used to describe artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. They all subverted the typical labels of what painting was, although, despite this, it was never the ideal label for the movement. It was a term that was somehow meant to encompass not only the work of painters who filled their canvases with fields of colour and abstract forms but also those who attacked their canvases with vigorous gestural expressionism. It was a movement that is comprised of many different artists. Still, the factor that tied them all together was that the artists were committed to art as expressions of the self, born out of profound emotion and universal themes. Most were shaped by the legacy of Surrealism, which was a movement that they translated into a new style fitting of the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
Pop Art started with the New York artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and James Rosenquist. They all drew on popular imagery and were actually part of an international phenomenon. Following on from the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists, Pop’s reintroduction of identifiable imagery, things like soup cans, cars, comics, and famous people, was a major shift for the direction of modernism. The subject matter moved far away from the traditional themes of “high art”. Pop artists celebrated commonplace objects and people of everyday life. The goal, in a sense, was to elevate pop culture to the level of fine art. Perhaps due to the incorporation of commercial images, Pop art has become one of the most recognizable styles of modern art.
Postmodernism is often seen as a reaction against the ideas and values of modernism as well as a word to describe the period that followed modernisms dominance in cultural theory and practice. The term is typically associated with skepticism, irony and philosophical critiques of the concepts of universal truths and objective reality. Modernism was generally based on idealism and a utopian vision of human life and society. It held a strong belief in progress. Postmodernism advocated for individual experience and that human experience was more concrete than abstract concepts.
One of the most defining characteristics of deconstructivism is that it challenges conventional ideas about form and order as if the designs tried to liberate art and architecture from preconceived rules. Through the controlled chaos, they challenge our own preconceptions. The designs consisted of irregular complex geometries and the objects were often formed by several different fragments put together without any apparent order. Deconstructivism criticizes rational order, purity, and simplicity. It is often considered a branch off of postmodernism.
started with the New York artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and James Rosenquist. They all drew on popular imagery and were actually part of an international phenomenon. Following on from the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists, Pop’s reintroduction of identifiable imagery, things like soup cans, cars, comics, and famous people, was a major shift for the direction of modernism. The subject matter moved far away from the traditional themes of “high art”. Pop artists celebrated commonplace objects and people of everyday life. The goal, in a sense, was to elevate pop culture to the level of fine art. Perhaps due to the incorporation of commercial images, Pop art has become one of the most recognizable styles of modern art.
There has always been a huge amount of debate with regards to the definition of art. What is art? What makes art? And why does one person say something is art and another revile it? This topic of debate is also not something that is new to the artistic world. Throughout the centuries in Western culture from the 11th century on through to the end of the 17th century, the definition of art was anything done with skill as a result of knowledge and practice. Along with this, all throughout history people have been criticising others over the work they’re creating and denouncing it as ‘not real art’ or not even art at all. So we must ask, how do you define the creation or production of art?
Some say art is beauty but then what is beauty? Beauty is much more than cosmetic. It is not always about prettiness. There are plenty of opportunities to find artistic works of artistic expression that we could agree are not necessarily pretty but are beautiful. Beautiful art may be the artist successfully portraying their artists intended emotions, whether they’re pretty and bright or dark and sinister, or something in between. But neither the artist nor the observer can be certain of successful communication in the end, so beauty in art will always be subjective.
One of the initial reactions to this approach of breaking down what art is is that the categories seem overly broad. Within even just the confines of fine art, you are able to explore painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, performance art, photography, and video amongst many more. And one could say that you could make or do anything and if you call it art, then it is. Arguably, that has to be true. Art does not have to be beautiful and that’s the key idea here. Art is an expression and how we create that expression is important. So the fundamental difference between art and beauty is that art is about who produced it whereas beauty depends on who’s looking. There is no one universal definition of visual art but there are ways of defining it! All throughout history these definitions have shifted and changed slightly. For example, a painting by Jean Basquiat that sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction in May 2017 would have had trouble finding an audience in Renaissance Italy. But art evolves and if it didn’t we would indeed live in a very bland world.
The definition of art has generally fallen into three categories: representation, expression, and form.
Art as Representation: Plato developed the first ideas into art. That is, he was one of the first to start thinking of it as something more. He developed the idea of art as “mimesis”, which in Greek means copying or imitation. For this reason, the primary meaning of art was for centuries defined as the representation or replication of something that is beautiful or meaningful. Until roughly the 18th century, a work of art was valued on how faithfully it replicated its subject. The definition of “good art” has had a profound impact on modern and contemporary. If people place such high value on very lifelike portraits such as those by the great masters, it raises questions about the value of ‘modern’ art. While representational art definitely still exists today and it has value, it is no longer the only measure of value.
Art as Expression of Emotional Content: Art as expression became more important during the Romantic movement where artworks began expressing a definite feeling as in the dramatic or sublime or suspenseful. The response of the audience was important as the artwork was intended to evoke an emotional response. This definition still holds true today, as artists look to connect with and evoke responses from their viewers.
Art as Form: Immanuel Kant was one of the most influential of the early philosophers and theorists toward the end of the 18th century. He believed that art should not have a concept but should be judged only and purely on its formal qualities because the content of the art is not of aesthetic interest. Formal qualities became particularly important when art became more abstract in the 20th century and the principles of art and design (balance, rhythm, harmony, and unity) were then used to define and assess the quality of art.
There are a number of quotes that in some sense shed a bit of light on the artists’ opinion on what art is. There are a few that we really like that we feel epitomises the sense of what we’re speaking about. Some of our favourites include:
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
– Thomas Merton
The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.
– Pablo Picasso
Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
– Edgar Degas
Art is the signature of civilizations.
– Jean Sibelius
And then lastly, this one which reminds us that humans are the only creatures on earth (that we know of) who are capable of stepping outside of utilitarian needs to create something that expresses thoughts, feelings, and emotions. There is something really amazing about that and in a way, it just puts aside all the debate and divisiveness we feel about art.
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
– Leo Tolstoy
Art is something we do. It is a verb. Art is an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and desires but it is even more personal than that. It’s about sharing the way we experience the world, which many is an extension of personality. It’s the communication of intimate concepts that cannot be portrayed by words alone. It is a feeling. It’s seeing a loved one, its standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean and realising how small and unimportant you are and finding the beauty of that. It is also rage and sorrow and joy and everything all wound up into one tight ball that art seeks to unravel.