Abstract expressionism - A timeless and powerful art movement | Sunday Observer

Abstract expressionism - A timeless and powerful art movement

16 January, 2022
Jackson Pollock at work, (The Hundreds)
Jackson Pollock at work, (The Hundreds)

A post-World War II movement, abstract expressionism originated in the 1940s and 1950s in the United States and was a genre motivated by an emotional expression, derived from the exposure and assimilation of European modernism. Gesture plays a dominant part in abstract expressionism, and strokes and spontaneity found themselves at its forefront. Abstract expressionism came about as artists began seeking subject matters that were both timeless and powerful.

Thus, they turned to a directness of expression that they felt was best realised through a lack of premeditation. The less abstract expressionists anticipated, the more they felt they were conveying identities and their emotions appropriately.

Similar to how surrealism popularised, abstract expressionists also placed a certain emphasis on engaging with their unconscious through psychic automatism. This adhered to a “go with the flow” notion that allows them to acquire free rein of their mind and subconscious in order to project their artistry.

Abstract expressionism matured and evolved over its years into two broad groupings. The first was through what is known as ‘action-painting'.

This was radicalised by Jackson Pollock, who dripped and poured paint over raw canvases over the ground, destroying traditional modes of painting with brushes on stretched canvas that sat on easels. His works had no subject matter and blew his viewers away. Such dynamically charged works could also be found in the studios of Willem De Kooning, Lee Krasner, and Franz Kline, albeit ridden with different aspects of their personal expressions.

The second is what is known as ‘Colour Field Paintings’. This was a term that stuck after art critic Clement Greenberg characterised it, and painters in this grouping filled their canvases with single colors. Artists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still were invested in how simple compositions of colour across large areas could instill meditative states in viewers and sought to transpose their own feelings into their works.

Abstract expressionism was first concocted in relation to Wassily Kandinsky and his oeuvre in 1919 in Germany. This was initially directed at German expressionists of this era and the certain anti-figurative aesthetic that came with their works. Alfred Barr was the first American to use the term ‘abstract expressionism’ in 1929, relating it to stylistic similarities to 20th-century Russian artists, specifically again to Wassily Kandinsky.

American art critic Robert Coates further popularised the term by tying it into works by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky.

Whilst Kandinksy has been commonly cited as the pioneer of abstract expressionism, there are arguments that Swedish artist Hilma af Klint might actually claim that title having discovered it back in 1906. Af Klint was a daughter of an admiral and was born and brought up in a country that allowed women to study art well before other European countries such as France, Germany or Italy.

Key abstract expressionist artists from the West

Hilma af Klint

Perhaps it was af Klint’s reservation as a female artist or the insecurity of feeling too radical that caused for her works to only be seen for the first time in 1986, even though she began creating her dynamically charged abstract paintings some 80 years before that.

She was convinced that the world was not ready to see her works, even drawing up conditions that they only be shown 20 years after her death. Across these years, her contemporaries such as Kandinsky and Mondrian would exhibit widely, whilst she would keep her works private.

Af Klint’s practice is motivated by a deep spiritualism that she derived from her practice as a medium; this parallel to the surrealist characteristic of reaching of psychic automation and seeking to uncover the unconscious within oneself is striking.

Her first series, ‘The paintings for the temple’ that was produced between 1906 to 1915 adhered to this trajectory of thought, seeking to visualise and articulate mystic tendencies in everyday life.

Wassily Kandinsky

A painter and theorist, Kandinsky is a household name and cannot be forgotten in the world of abstract expressionism. Born in Moscow, Kandinsky gave up teaching law at the age of 30 to enroll in the Munich Academy, although he was not initially granted admission. Parallel to that of af Klint’s spiritual trajectory, Kandinsky sought to create art that conveyed a universal sense of spirituality.

Kandinsky played with colour and form, as well as the interrelated aesthetic experience that they create together. Kandinsky viewed himself as a prophet with the mission of using his art to convey universal human emotions and ideas, and felt that this was a mission aimed towards the betterment of society.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock has been described as the leading force behind the abstract expressionist movement. He radicalised abstract styles and redefined the techniques of drawing and painting, allowing viewers themselves to redefine what pictorial space meant.

Pollock’s famous ‘drip paintings’ represent one of the most original bodies of work of the century and changed the course of American art for good.

Most of his canvases were placed on the floor or set against a wall prior to his painting process, rather than the traditional way of being attached to an easel. He would then allow the paint to drip from paint cans. Instead of using a paintbrush, he would create depth in his works by using knives and sticks. His style tied in closely with the emotive and expressive themes of surrealism and avoided any clear points of emphasis.

Pollock's works had no relation to the size of his canvases at hand as he disregarded dimensions. His influence on American art is unrivalled, presenting a strong opposition to European modernism that trumped the art world at the time, recreating new understandings of surface and touch.

Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning’s work, unlike Pollock’s, depicted warped and abstracted subjects. He also began with figurative paintings before experimenting with abstraction and gestural paintings. Similarities with regard to abstract expressionism lie in their robust movements in creating their works, witnessed through the energy in their stokes.

De Kooning not only added paint aggressively to his canvases but also scraped them off as part of his process.

His work, ‘Woman I’, was made across an unusually long period, due to time spent on preliminary studies and an obsessiveness that made him repaint the work repeatedly. Throughout the work, franticness can be felt in his application of paint, as he successfully projects a “reverence and fear of the power of the feminine”.

A Dutch American artist, de Kooning was born in Rotterdam and moved to the United States, later becoming an American citizen. He sought to redefine what a “finished” painting was, yet often leaving his works with a dynamic sense of incompletion, as if his subjects were still active, moving, and coming in and out of definition.

Courtesy: Artling