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What is Abstract Expressionism?

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

A look at the Art Movement that started the comment, "My five-year-old could paint that."

Image of Jackson Pollock Painting
Image of Jackson Pollock Painting from

Lately, I've been working in the abstract, creating paintings using print-making techniques. They are less messy monoprints, especially since I'm using acrylic paint. When I look at these little pieces that I'm making and loving, I have to laugh at myself.

I used to hate abstract painting.

I was that person standing in the art museum, hip jutted out and eyes squinting hard, trying to "get it" and complaining when I didn't. However, two things happened that dispelled my distaste. The first was when I tried to make my own abstract paintings. The second, was when I started researching abstract expressionism. It was then, I understood.

Creating an abstract artwork that actually looks good, is pretty difficult.

My early attempts were muddy, boring, and lacked direction. How did they do it I wondered? These artists, who I realized when I started looking closer into their lives and processes, had something important to say. The way they did it was by doing it together. Together, they started a movement.

The Beginning of Abstract Expressionism

The art movement, Abstract Expressionism, developed in New York in the 1940s and 1950s.

Art movements tend to originate in one central place. For example, Impressionism in Paris and the Renaissance in Florence. An art movement is not attributed to a single artist. It involves a group of artists with similar philosophies, ideas, and styles. I hesitate here to use the word styles because each artist, of course, has their own unique style and approach to the commonalities of a movement.

With Impressionism, artists tended toward looser brush strokes and a focus on the light,

but with enough study, you can grasp the difference between a Monet and a Renoir because their styles were their own.

Image of Joan Mitchell painting- City Landscape

Jackson Pollock painting One: Number 31

With Abstract Expressionism, the artists of this movement all expressed themselves in the

abstract. But you can see here how a painting by Joan Mitchell is similar to a painting by Jackson Pollock, belonging to the same art movement. And yet, they are both different in their approaches, techniques, and methods.

So, we have this phenomenon of an art movement occurring in a localized place, and it's then forwarded by artists who are learning from each other, pushing each other, and motivating each other. Just as the Impressionists all knew each other—they were exhibiting with each other, talking at cafes, going to each other’s studios. So too did the artists of Abstract Expressionism.

The artists of this movement knew each other, saw each other’s work, discussed their work,

socialized with each other, they dated, they married, they exhibited together. Art and creating affected their lives in so many different realms.

Two Main Subsets of Abstract Expressionism

The paintings under Abstract Expressionism are diverse, but there are considered to be two subsets that fall under the umbrella of Ab Ex. One being Color Field and the other Action Painting.

The artist’s primary focus with Color Field is on the expressive power of color. To get the full expression of the color they often worked in large formats, looking to overwhelm and envelope the viewer. There can be an almost spiritual or religious quality because the large areas of color can focus a viewer’s attention and create a contemplative or meditative response in the viewer.

The other subset is Action Painting. If you’re familiar with Jackson Pollock's work, this would fall under this subset. Action painting is when the artist worked in a more reflexive, spontaneous manner. Improvising brush strokes and creating a rhythm to their marks. There’s more of an impulse to the lines and swatches, a happenstance of colors.

Of course, there are works created at this time that don’t fall perfectly into either category.

There’s a whole middle-ground of these styles you can explore. But all of the artists a part of Ab Ex were interested in art as a way of expressing themselves, their emotions, thoughts, and beliefs.

This movement was born from the trauma of war and the feelings of anxiety that followed. Ab Ex was also shaped by the Surrealist movement, which was interested in releasing the unconscious mind, giving form to our buried thoughts and dreams. Their art encapsulated this kind of grand, romantic American spirit. It was about individual freedoms and about being expressive.

My Five-Year-Old-Could Paint That

Abstract art, in general, is one of those notorious subjects that people frequently like to claim they don’t understand or say that any five-year-old could do. As I mentioned earlier, before I started studying art, I was one of those people. But by taking the time to study abstract art you begin to realize there was real intention behind what was being created, especially during the height of the Abstract Expressionism movement.

There can be something to fear in a blank canvas, fear of making a mistake, in not getting it

right. But there’s a skill in knowing yourself, a vulnerability in putting yourself out there in paint and on canvas, in letting yourself experiment with new techniques.

Many of these artists started out with little to no money. To save money, some would paint over their canvases, choosing the exploration of their work over its preservation. I think that takes a tremendous amount of courage. Lee Krasner would even cut up her old paintings and create collages of the pieces, combining and exploring her work through its destruction.

Pushing forward your ideas of something new also takes courage. Many artists of this

group fully broke with the world of the figure, landscape, and still-life. There was nothing of substance for anyone to grasp onto when looking at their pieces. These works were widely different from what came before them.

Something that we can think about when looking at these pieces is, it’s not only about what’s in front of us. It’s about what’s within us. What do these pieces make us feel? Much if not all of art is about this. But without a defined image in front of us, we have nowhere to hide behind. Sure, we can still talk about the colors. But when you are staring at something like a painting by Barnett Newman, you can only think about the color red for so long before you're left with what really connects you.

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue I. An abstract painting by Barnett Newman
Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue I. An abstract painting by Barnett Newman. From wkikiart

Kenneth Noland, a Color Field artist said, “I think of painting without subject matter as music

without words.”

Just as we wouldn’t say an instrumental piece is unfinished because there are no lyrics, we can expand our ideas of art, and in the case of Ab Ex, of painting in particular.

If you never typically work in the abstract maybe now is the time to try it. If the possibility of making bad art is stopping you, just remember— it might be bad, but does it really matter?

If you'd prefer a more visual presentation of Ab EX ,check out the video I did on my youtube channel, Art History Shorts.

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