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 realized 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 radicalized 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 characterized 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 color 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.
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 really 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.
A painter and theorist, Kandinsky is a household name and cannot be forgoed in the world of abstract expressionism. Born in Moscow, Kandinsky gave up teaching law at the age of 30 to enrol 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 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 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 unrivaled, 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’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 regards 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, a 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.
Mark Rothko’s family left Russia and settled in America in 1913. He later attended Yale University but left after two years to study art. Rothko made works that would later bring people to tears. Like many of his contemporaries, Rothko found himself in New York and around other New York School painters such as Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. He also founded Ten, an artist collective that leaned towards abstract expressionism and exhibited until 1940.
Rothko was of the more innovative figures in abstract art in America and has been cited as a leading pioneer in the Abstract Expressionist movement as well as a leading member of the New York School. Over his career as a painter, he found himself moving across several artistic styles before arriving at his signature Colour Field works comprised of soft rectangular forms that seemingly float on stained areas of color. The one constant across his evolving practice was how his art articulated a profound sense of emotion. Rothko’s early works that depicted landscapes, still lives and portraits showed an innate understanding of both Expressionism and Surrealism, whilst his newer forms as seen through his Colour Field works south to evoke a sense of spiritual and meditative states in viewers.
Another major figure in the field of Abstract Expressionism, Barnett Newman has been described as one of the most intellectual artists in the New York School. The son of Polish Jewish immigrants, his works were strongly motivated by his studies in philosophy, along with political activism. Newman believed that “art was an act of self-creation and a declaration of political, intellectual, and individual freedom”.
Newman’s works were also driven by spiritual and metaphysical ideas, as seen through his iconic zip paintings. He claimed to have never produced a preparatory sketch, creating works in single and unrepeatable instances where an artwork comes together and renders itself complete organically.
Much like the artistic tendencies of Abstract Expressionists, Newman’s career erupted across fits and starts. Acting as his worst critic, he destroyed many of his works as he deemed them unworthy of consideration and later destroyed them. It was not until the 1960s, in the last years of his life, that he began to achieve recognition and acclaim for his work.
Abstract Expressionism can be seen through a delineation of Zen Buddhism in Japanese artists. At the Honolulu Museum of Art, an exhibition titled ‘Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West’ in 2017-18 highlighted the influences of Zen Buddhism and calligraphy on the Abstract Expressionists. Japanese-Americans found their heritage motivating them towards seeking after the sublime, with this exhibition comparing and contrasting the aesthetics in their experimental abstract forms.
A strong comparison was made between Saburo Hasegawa’s ‘Abstract Calligraphy’ (1955-57) work to that of Robert Motherwell’s action paintings. The similarities lie not only in their black and white nature but also in the shapes and movements created through their works that both captured intense emotions. Curves that rise and fall through their brushstrokes pitted against their papers and canvases exude the underlying essence of Buddhist ideology.
The turbulent years after the Second World War witnessed not only the surge of Abstract Expressionism in the West but also that of Japan becoming a sanctum for revolutionary practices and performances for the genre. Artists such as Dōmoto Inshō and Kazuo Shiraga invented non-traditional techniques that fell in line with the notion of the gestural.
As abstract art emerged in Europe in the early 20th century, artists such as Lin Fengmian and Wu Dayu left China to France to study art. They were the first generation of Chinese artists to study in Europe and upon their return, found themselves in institutions as principals and professors of Western Oil Painting. As a result of returning artists as a whole, the arts in universities flourished in the decade or so leading up to World War II.
The first signs of Abstract art in China were uncovered in Shanghai’s art scene in the 1980s, following an exhibition titled ‘Painting Exhibition of 12 Chinese Artists’ in 1979 where impressionism and expressionism were the main focus. As with experimentations across an array of artistic genres, Abstract Expressionism was triggered during the 85 New Wave Movement. This explosive response to the Cultural Revolution, true to the nature of Abstract Expressionism itself, found itself transposed onto vivacious canvases that sought to advance its genre in the country.
China’s abstract art scene then found itself maturing from the 80s, with abstract artists and critics creating communities where artistic and academic exchanges could be fostered. Galleries specializing in abstract art initiated, along with abstract dedicated auctions, proving the existence of demand in the Chinese art market. Throughout these years, household names such as Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-chun rose to popularity, with Shanghai establishing itself as a hub for abstract group exhibitions and activities.
Here at The Artling, we’ve lined up these Abstract Expressionist works allowing you to see the influence that the genre has had to our current day in Asian art, and to discover contemporary iterations in this field.
To explore more abstract works on The Artling, click here.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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