Abstract Expressionism: A beginner’s guide

Published 29 September 2015

Autumn 2016 sees a landmark exhibition of Abstract Expressionism taking place in the main galleries at the Royal Academy.

  • You might already be familiar with the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock but, as our exhibition will demonstrate, there is far more diversity than might first appear. Here are six key facts to help you find out more about this groundbreaking movement.

    Abstract Expressionism was the first great American art movement

    For centuries, Paris had been the traditional centre for the world’s artists, dealers and collectors. But, then, in the 1940s and ‘50s, a new movement emerged that placed America centre-stage. Characterised by large, abstract, emotionally charged oil paintings, Abstract Expressionism swiftly made New York the focus of the art world. Developing just after the Great Depression and overlapping with the Vietnam War, the movement coincided with America’s emergence as the pre-eminent global superpower. “In its confidence and espousal of freedom of expression, there is a particularly American feeling about Abstract Expressionism,” says the exhibition’s curator Edith Devaney.

    But it had its roots in Europe

    Abstract Expressionism owed a great deal to the European Modernist tradition. The interest in spontaneous, automatic, or unconscious forms of creativity was a direct inheritance from Surrealism. At the same time, the works of Pablo Picasso were widely seen as the gold standard to which the Abstract Expressionists aspired. America, of course, has a long history of immigration from Europe, and Abstract Expressionism was no different: painter Hans Hofmann was born in Germany; Willem de Kooning trained in the Netherlands. Even the term itself – Abstract Expressionism – was first used in Germany in 1919 to describe German Expressionism, and only came to be applied to the new wave of US artists in 1946.

  • Artist Jackson Pollock painting in his studio

    Artist Jackson Pollock painting in his studio

    Photo by Martha Holmes/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

  • Colour field or action painting?

    In the past art historians largely divided Abstract Expression into two subsections. The first is known as “action painting” – a term coined by US art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952. Action painting, whose exponents included Pollock as well as de Kooning and Franz Kline, was characterised by a focus on painting as a dynamic act of creation. Seeing these works, says Christopher Le Brun, President of the Royal Academy, “made my imagination come to life and realise what painting could be – very poetic, very moving, and very physical”. In opposition was what critic Clement Greenberg described as “colour field” painting. This approach was characterised by large expanses of more flatly applied colour, and exemplified by the likes of Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman. “This had never been seen before in the history of art,” says Le Brun.

  • Seeing these works made my imagination come to life and realise what painting could be – very poetic, very moving, and very physical

    Christopher Le Brun, President of the Royal Academy

  • Or neither?

    In fact, as the RA’s exhibition will reveal, Abstract Expressionism was about much more than just colour-field or action painting. The exhibition demonstrates the versatility of many of the artists involved: from small-scale poured paintings by Pollock to surprisingly celebratory works by Rothko in bright oranges and yellow. While the RA show focuses on the core New York figures (Pollock and Rothko, de Kooning, Kline, and Robert Motherwell, among others). It also includes artists based in and around San Francisco (like Clyfford Still and Sam Francis) and some of the many women artists at the forefront of the movement: Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Louise Nevelson. As the first multi-artist exhibition of US Abstract Expressionism to take place in the UK since 1959, one of the key points is the movement’s oft-overlooked diversity.

  • Portrait of American artist Lee Krasner (1908–1984) as she poses in front of one of her paintings, New York, New York, 1950s

    Portrait of American artist Lee Krasner (1908–1984) as she poses in front of one of her paintings, New York, New York, 1950s

    Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

  • Abstract Expressionism was not just about painting

    While it is the paintings of artists like Pollock and Rothko that are best-known today, Abstract Expressionism encompassed a much wider range of media than is often realised. Sculpture, collage and photography were especially prominent during the period. Artists such as Nevelson and David Smith became known for large-scale outdoor sculptures and public art, while Aaron Siskind sought to capture the same kind of energy and movement in his photography that Pollock was attempting to evoke through action painting. Hans Namuth, meanwhile, became best known for his photographic portraits of Pollock at work in his studio.

    They celebrated art, and each other

    Although Pollock shot to fame almost instantly, for many of the movement’s other artists, recognition came slowly, if at all. The role of the critic was important in this process. Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman both worked as critics in addition to their artistic practice. They – along with Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg – helped to celebrate the movement and garner wider public attention. But the artists also supported each other: in 1949, they founded the Artists’ Club to provide a venue for eating, drinking, debating art, and organising exhibitions (not wholly unlike the Royal Academy, in fact).

    Abstract Expressionism is in the Main Galleries at the RA from 24 September 2016 – 2 January 2017.
    The exhibition tours to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from 3 February – 4 June 2017.

    Tom Jeffreys (@tomjeffreys) is a writer, editor and curator.

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