The History of Abstract Expressionism

by Evan Gillespie

Near the end of World War II, the formal philosophies of European abstractionists merged with the emotional outpouring of German Expressionists to create a new kind of art—an unrestrained, untraditional type of art that was quickly dubbed Abstract Expressionism. More a way for critics and viewers to understand and categorize the work of a large number of diverse contemporary artists than a description of a coherent style, Abstract Expressionism nonetheless became the most important artistic movement of the post-war years.

Precursors to Abstract Expressionism

The abstract art movements of the early twentieth century were sometimes coldly theoretical—the analytic Cubism of Picasso and Braque, Malevich’s Suprematism, Italian Futurism, the Rayonism of Goncharova and Larionov—but at the heart of many of the abstract movements was a desire to capture some inner insight of the artist through an unconventional depiction of the outside world. The vigorous brushstrokes of Van Gogh, the simplified forms of Cézanne, the bold colors of Gauguin and Matisse—all of these techniques were focused on bringing the inner life of the artist out into the daylight and putting it on the canvas.

In the second decade of the twentieth century, artists working in Germany and Austria began to build upon the ideas pioneered by the Post-Impressionists, pushing the quest for emotional expression in painting to new extremes. The German Expressionists rejected the aesthetic goals of the Impressionists, preferring instead the energetic techniques of Van Gogh and the vibrant colors of Matisse as a way to achieve overt expression. For the Expressionists, the externalizing of emotion was more important than the creation of an attractive picture.

Among these Expressionists was a group of Russian emigres who banded together with a number of native German painters to form a group they called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). The common goal of the Blue Rider artists was the hope of finding a way to express spiritual ideas through painting. The group was founded by Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian, and Franz Marc, a German, both of whom made paintings characterized by the symbolic use of color and an emphasis on abstract imagery.

Kandinsky in particular was interested in exploring the notion of spontaneous painting, in which he was guided by intuition more than intellect; he called his spontaneous paintings “improvisations,” as opposed to his more calculated “compositions.” His works were among the first entirely nonrepresentational paintings, and their lack of real-world subject matter, along with the spontaneous origin of his improvisations, made his paintings obvious precursors to the Abstract Expressionist movement.

The Birth of Abstract Expressionism

Expressionism was primarily a European movement. In the United States, figurative painting remained the norm through the first third of the twentieth century. Where American painters of the inter-war period were influenced by European abstractionists, they applied techniques of abstraction to specifically American subjects, as was the case with the Precisionists, American painters influenced by Cubism and Futurism. Precisionists painted abstracted landscapes and cityscapes, but their abstraction was much more analytical than expressive.

In the 1930s, American Regionalism came into vogue. The Regionalists were realists who painted scenes of American life, both rural and urban, and their work often attempted to make incisive social statements. In this sense, the American Regionalists worked in the vein of social realists painters such as Diego Rivera, whose politically inspired murals were created in support of the socialist cause in Mexico. American Regionalist painters included Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton.

Through Benton, Regionalism can be said to have played an important role in the foundation of Abstract Expressionism, if only because it served as a counterpoint to the artistic urges of the first American Abstract Expressionist. In 1930, Charles Pollock, a painter from California, moved to New York and began studying under Benton. His brother, Jackson, moved along with him and also studied under the famous Regionalist at the Art Students League. Charles Pollock had been inspired by Rivera and other social realist painters, and Benton was the most famous practitioner of American social realism. While Charles Pollock would continue to paint in the social realist style into the 1940s, Jackson Pollock quickly began to feel stifled by the traditional techniques and philosophies of the Regionalists, and his exploration of new methods of painting became the embryo of Abstract Expressionism.

In 1945, Jackson Pollock married Lee Krasner, a painter in her own right, and moved from New York City to Springs, Long Island, where he set up a small studio. In this studio, he developed the painting technique that would become his trademark and the first truly Abstract Expressionist style. He would lay a canvas flat on the studio floor and then stand above it and drip paint on the canvas using a saturated brush dipped directly into a paint can. His technique was vigorous and unrestrained, and his drips and splatters covered the entire canvas.

Because Pollock’s technique produced a painting that was a visual representation of the painting process itself, the style came to be known as “action painting.” By looking at the pattern of drips on Pollock’s canvas, the viewer could easily imagine the action of the painter as he created the painting. This direct visual connection between the creative process and the finished artwork seemed to be an uninterrupted conduit between the artist’s inner world and the experience of the viewer. Pollock’s action painting, in its formal simplicity, achieved what the Expressionists had been trying to accomplish: the effective expression of emotional energy in a purely visual medium.

The Role of Critics

Pollock might not have been accepted as the founder of the most significant movement in twentieth century art if not for the support of the most influential art critic of the first half of the century. Clement Greenberg was art critic for Partisan Review and The Nation in the 1940s and 1950s, and he was outspokenly infatuated with Pollock’s work.

In the work of Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists who came later, Greenberg saw an important step in the evolution of painting. The progression of abstraction, in Greenberg’s view, had been a path toward the triumph of pure formality over figurative representation. Pollock’s paintings did not represent anything; they were simple fields of color and gesture that made no reference to anything but the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. This reduction of painting to its formal essence represented the ultimate evolution of the medium, and in Greenberg’s opinion, no one did it better than Pollock, who Greenberg called the finest painter of his generation.

Greenberg supported the work of other Abstract Expressionists, as well, including that of Hans Hoffman, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Other influential critics, such as Harold Rosenberg and Thomas B. Hess of ARTNews, championed the work of Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky.

The Gestural Painters

Although Pollock was the most well known of the action painters, many other Abstract Expressionists painted in a style characterized by the bold application of paint to the canvas in a way that emphasized the process of the painting’s creation. In the work of these painters, technique was made visible, and the refinement of the painting’s surface was subordinate to the artist’s expression.

Arshile Gorky was born in Armenia and came to the United States in 1922 to study in Boston. Early in his career, Gorky was influenced by Cézanne and the post-Impressionists, and the echo of Cézanne’s proto-abstract work is evident in Gorky’s early canvases. Later, Gorky embraced broader abstraction, and his “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb” is reminiscent of Kandinsky’s improvisations. Although his work helped set the stage for the experiments of the New York school, Gorky died in 1948, well before the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Hans Hofmann was born in Bavaria and grew up in Munich, but he moved to the United States when he was in his early 50s. Once in America, he gained a reputation not only as an important Abstract Expressionist painter, but as a teacher; his students, first at the Art Students League in New York and then at his own school, would go on to become some of the most celebrated artists of the next generation.

Hofmann’s work was energetic, but much of it was more focused on geometry than was Pollock’s. Hofmann had been influenced by the Cubists, and even in the heart of his Abstract Expressionist work, he maintained a connection to the suggestion of illusionistic space, exploring the juxtaposition of colors and forms as a method for referring to three-dimensional space.

Franz Kline was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1910. Unlike Hofmann, for whom color was indispensible, Kline did much of his mature work in black and white. He was an action painter—many of his works appear to be simply spontaneous black strokes on a white ground—but his process was not as organic as Pollock’s. Hofmann made preparatory sketches for many of his paintings, and early on he experimented with a projector, using it to enlarge his drawings to the point that they became abstract compositions.

Although Hofmann’s work often resembles Asian calligraphy, the artist remained true to Abstract Expressionism’s general repudiation of imitation and denied any connection between his work and calligraphy.

Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam in 1904, but he eventually came to be associated with the New York School and the American Abstract Expressionists. De Kooning did not feel the need to distance himself from representation as much as other Abstract Expressionists did, and his work fits into the movement thanks to its broadly gestural execution and its experimentation with the figure-ground relationship rather than because of an eagerness to move beyond representation.

De Kooning’s most characteristic work, in fact, is figurative. In it, human forms—mostly female—are reduced to their barest elements—wide eyes, arm, legs, breasts—and partially dissolved in a furious barrage of strokes that work to destroy the painting’s sense of three-dimensionality. Later in his career, de Kooning moved toward pure abstraction, but these figurative works of the 1950s are his most enduring contribution to Abstract Expressionism.

Mark Tobey, a native of Centerville, Wisconsin, was heavily influenced by Eastern religions and mysticism. He developed his style while living in Seattle, but he traveled widely and eventually was celebrated in the arts communities of Europe and New York.

Tobey’s style originated as an attempt to express his spiritual ideas in an abstracted visual form. His early paintings often were created by covering a broad painted texture with seemingly random white calligraphic strokes, a technique he called “white writing.” Although generally more restrained than Pollock’s, Tobey’s approach resulted in a canvas covered with a more or less uniform texture, a product not at all unlike Pollock’s paintings.

One of the handful of New York Abstract Expressionists who were actually native New Yorkers, Helen Frankenthaler was born in New York City in 1928. A friend of Clement Greenberg, Frankenthaler was welcomed into the New York school with her early nonfigurative paintings, and her technical explorations would provide the foundation for the next generation of Abstract Expressionist art.

Frankenthaler painted in a loose, gestural style, but she painted with oil paint diluted with turpentine to the point that it soaked into the canvas. The effect was one of translucent colors almost like those of watercolors, and the stains produced on the canvas by the soaking, spreading paint were a characteristic adopted enthusiastically by several artists who came later.

The Roots of Color Field

Greenberg’s praise for Abstract Expressionism revolved around the new style’s ability to make paintings that concerned themselves not with any reference to the outward three-dimensional world, but only with the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. In Pollock’s work, Greenberg saw painting that was unashamedly two-dimensional, with no aspiration to being anything else. This type of painting, Greenberg argued, was a highly evolved kind of art, the natural culmination of the progression of abstraction that began in the nineteenth century.

Some Abstract Expressionists saw an opportunity for painting to evolve beyond even the work of Pollock and the action painters. Although artists like Pollock, Hofmann and Kline had gone a long way toward removing representation and illusionism from their canvases, the very gestures of the action painters were themselves something of a representation. Kline’s strokes invited comparison to calligraphy, Hofmann’s forms evoked the ideas of three-dimensional space, and even the layers of Pollock’s drips and spatters suggested something more than strict two-dimensionality.

Clyfford Still was born in North Dakota in 1904. Like Mark Tobey, he did his early work on the American West Coast, not becoming firmly associated with the New York school until the late 1940s. He divided his time over the next two decades between New York and California, ultimately settling in Maryland, where he died in 1980.

Still’s paintings were more controlled than those of the action painters. He painted with heavy layers of oil paint, but his forms were hard-edged and uniformly colored. He concentrated on jagged shapes of contrasting colors juxtaposed in striking compositions that covered the entire canvas.

Mark Rothko was born in Russia in 1903, and he came to America in 1913. He grew up in New York, where studied under, among other teachers, Arshile Gorky. Influenced by the German Expressionists, Rothko began painting in an Expressionist style and was exhibiting paintings by the end of the 1920s.

Through the 1930s, Rothko worked to develop his mature style, drawing upon the influences of mythology and Nietzschean philosophy. He struggled through experiments with Surrealism and primitive abstraction before settling into his signature style at the end of the 1940s.

Rothko’s mature paintings are characterized by thin paint applied in layers to produce a texture with visual depth. His compositions are simple, often consisting of rectangles of a single color overlaid on a ground of another color. Although he worked quickly, there is little gestural content in his work; his paintings are, instead, broad fields of mostly unmodulated color.

Like Rothko, Barnett Newman also dabbled in Surrealism and Expressionism before settling into Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. Born in New York in 1905, Newman studied at City College of New York, and he became an influential critic and art writer as well as a painter.

Newman’s mature style defined, along with Rothko’s work, the early Color Field movement. He painted large canvases with undifferentiated fields of solid color and then accented them with thin lines of a contrasting color which he called “zips.” In his early paintings, the fields of color are thin and layered like Rothko’s, but in later paintings the fields are pure areas of bold color.

Although the early Color Field painters worked hard to remove their paintings from the realm of representation, the elemental nature of their images tempted viewers to make connections and think of the paintings in terms of figurative references. Commentators consistently struggle to explain the works without using the vocabulary of representation; Still’s paintings are compared to botanical and geological formations, and viewers see landscapes and horizon lines in Newman’s zips.

Rothko was one of many Abstract Expressionist artists who objected to the figurative labeling of his work. He, in fact, did not even want to be considered an Abstract Expressionist. Calling his work abstract suggested that it was a simplified representation of something else, and calling it expressionist implied that it was the external manifestation of a specific internal feeling rather than a purely formal statement.

Post-painterly abstraction

In 1964, well after the peak of Abstract Expressionism in New York, Clement Greenberg curated an exhibition of new paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He called the exhibition “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” introducing a new term that oriented the work of a new generation of artists relative to Abstract Expressionism.

Greenberg saw these new paintings as representing yet another step in the evolution of abstraction. Abstract Expressionism had been about an emphasis on the surface of the painting, and it had often achieved that emphasis by focusing on the painter’s technique; gesture and surface were important. Post-painterly abstraction, in contrast, moved beyond the need to refer to the painterly process in order to concentrate fully on the two-dimensional surface. The term itself suggested that the time for painterliness had passed, that the action of the painter was obsolete.

Kenneth Noland was born in North Carolina in 1924. He studied in America and Paris, and in New York he met Greenberg and Helen Frankenthaler. In the late 1950s, he worked in Frankenthaler’s style, applying thinned oil paint to canvas in staining washes. By the time he was exhibited in Greenberg’s show in 1964, he was using acrylic paints, which allowed him to paint with bright, unmodulated color that showed little evidence of his technique.

Noland’s work is characterized by vibrant shapes and areas of color, usually in concentric circles, angled chevrons or bold stripes. He also introduced the idea of working on canvases whose shape was somehow related to its painted surface rather than being a traditional rectangle.

Frank Stella was born in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1936 and attended Princeton University. He moved to New York in 1958, where he was influenced by Newman and began to develop a style that reacted against the work of more painterly, gestural Abstract Expressionists.

Stella’s post-painterly style is very similar to that of Noland. Stella’s canvases feature simple shapes delineated in areas of pure color. Stella was willing to experiment with a wide variety of colors, and his shapes became relatively complex; concentric arcs and partial circles made up his “Protractor” paintings, for example. Like Noland, Stella also sometimes used shaped canvases for his paintings.

Morris Louis was born in Baltimore in 1912. He studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts, and he was a part of a group of artists, including Kenneth Noland, who worked in the Washington, DC, area. He lived in New York in the late 1930s before returning to Baltimore, and in the early 1950s, he visited Frankenthaler’s along with Noland, an event that encouraged him to work in Frankenthaler’s style with thinned paints.

While Noland moved beyond the staining technique, Louis stayed with it, continuing to work with thinned paints through his career. Like other Color Field and Post-Painterly artists, Louis was concerned with applying pure color to the canvas, either in broad color fields or in self-contained strokes of color. Unlike Frankenthaler, Louis attempted to remove traces of gesture from his paintings, but unlike Noland and Stella, he allowed texture into his painted surfaces, letting the thinned paint soak into the canvas, leaving behind evidence of its spread through the fibers of the material.

Legacy of Abstract Expressionism

Post-painterly abstraction marked a fork in the evolution of abstract art. Post-painterly abstractionists grew up with Abstract Expressionism and drew some elements from it—two-dimensionality, rejection of representation—while throwing away some other elements of it—gesture, expression, action. The relative coldness of post-painterly abstraction would lead to the frigidity of Minimalism, a movement that was abstract but indisputably not expressionistic. Some other artists, however, would pick up the elements of Abstract Expressionism that were discarded by the post-painterly artists, thereby leading the legacy of Abstract Expressionism into the post-modern era.

Robert Rauschenberg was born in Texas in 1925. He studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, the Académie Julian in Paris and North Carolina’s Black Mountain College. At Black Mountain, Rauschenberg studied under Josef Albers, whose canvases helped to link European abstraction of the early twentieth century with the Minimalists of the 1960s, but Rauschenberg’s own work would develop in a much more expressive direction.

Rauschenberg moved to New York in the 1950s, and he very quickly established his own reaction to the Abstract Expressionists. He painted monochromatic paintings, both white and black, which referred to the Abstract Expressionist concern for the painting’s surface but did so in a much more playful way. From there, he embarked on a series of increasingly radical artistic experiments, such as erasing a drawing by de Kooning and calling it a new work of art. Eventually he began combining expressive painting with three-dimensional objects in sculptural collages that he called “combines,” a type of piece that would become his signature product.

Jasper Johns was born in Georgia in 1930 and grew up in South Carolina. He moved to New York in the 1950s, where he met Rauschenberg; the two artists had lifelong romantic relationship as well as a professional one.

Johns’ work connects Abstract Expressionism with 1960s Pop Art and the post-modern movements that came after. Johns’ paintings of the 1950s are characterized by heavy, layered applications of paint; unlike the Color Field painters, he had no interest in turning away from the painterly techniques of Abstract Expressionism. He did not, however, have an interest in turning away from representation, either. He painted images that he drew from popular culture—most famously flags and maps—and he turned them into fine art by keeping the hand of the artist undeniably visible in the finished product, a technique that derives directly from Abstract Expressionism.

Thanks to artists such as Rauschenberg and Johns, the concerns of Abstract Expressionism survived the chilling effect of Minimalism, and painters with direct connections to the movement—such as Judith Godwin, who studied with Hofmann and Kline continued to work in an Abstract Expressionist style well into the twenty-first century.

Evan Gillespie holds a Master of Arts in art history from the University of Notre Dame and currently teaches courses in art history and visual culture at Indiana University.