Abstract expressionism

gigatos | June 7, 2022


Abstract expressionism is a contemporary pictorial movement within abstraction, specifically, the informalist and matteric tendencies after World War II. The term was first used in Germany in 1919 in Der Sturm, a magazine about German expressionism. In the United States, Alfred Barr was the first to use the term in 1929 in connection with the works of Wassily Kandinsky.

American critics soon caught on to this new style, most notably Clement Greenberg, writing in The Nation and Partisan review, as well as Harold Rosenberg and Thomas B. Hess. It was these critics who spoke of American type painting, Abstract expressionism, Action painting, Drip painting or Gestural painting. It is the critic Robert Coates who is credited with coining the term abstract expressionism. However, the artists of this movement rejected the term because they understood that their work was not abstract, strictly speaking, and that they had no relation to German expressionism.

Within this movement is Action Painting, a term coined by the critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 to refer to the work of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Rosenberg first proposed it in “American Action Painters”, an important article published in Art News, vol. 51. Action painting and abstract expressionism are terms that are often used as synonyms, although they are not exactly the same.

Abstract Expressionism is also known as the New York School, but this denomination encompasses other arts (music, design, poetry, theater…). It is not strictly speaking a school with a common style, but a group of artists with similar convictions and who shared a series of pictorial techniques.

It can be pointed out that it has formal characteristics of this style, in the first place, its preference for large formats. They usually worked with oil on canvas.

They are generally abstract in the sense that they eliminate figuration. However, there are exceptions and some use figurative strokes, appearing recognizable figures, as in the case of Willem de Kooning”s Women. The canvases present a geometric aspect that makes them different from preceding movements, such as surrealism.

One of the main characteristics of the Abstract Expressionists is the conception of the painting surface as all over (surface coverage), to signify an open field without limits on the surface of the painting: the pictorial space is treated with frontality and there is no hierarchy between the different parts of the canvas.

The chromatism is usually very limited: black and white, as well as the primary colors: magenta, yellow and cyan. Expressionist painters who reduced the work to practically a single color were already anticipating minimal art.

This type of painting, with violent strokes of color in large formats, presents anguish and conflict as distinctive features, which is now considered to reflect the society in which these works emerged.

The expressionists took from surrealism what was automatic about the act of painting, with its references to psychic impulses and the unconscious. Painting a picture was less a process directed by reason and more a spontaneous act, a dynamic bodily action. They were interested, therefore, in the “psychic automatism” that brought universal symbols and emotions out of their minds.

It is not strange that they were then interested in the most symbolic and abstract surrealism, that of Miró, Arp, Masson, Matta, Wolfgang Paalen and Gordon Onslow Ford, rather than figurative surrealism. From them they took the organic and biomorphic forms.

Initially, it was a movement influenced by surrealism.

The first generation of Abstract Expressionism was formed by about fifteen painters who worked in New York between 1942 and 1957, among them: Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), who is considered a leader and precursor, William Baziotes, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Clyfford Still. One of the most important places for the emergence of this movement of young artists was Peggy Guggenheim”s Art of this Century gallery.


Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), an Armenian exiled in New York since 1925, is considered to be its inspiration and initiator. He was influenced by surrealism and served as a bridge between interwar European painting and the American school. Around 1936 he abandoned figuration and, under the influence of Roberto Matta, discovered a new formal language, opting for biomorphic abstract figures. Although he tended towards abstraction and spontaneity, he did not completely dispense with drawing, nor did he give up control of the brushstroke.

Very close to surrealism was always the work of William Baziotes (1912-1963), who deepened the tendency, with Jungian roots, to investigate ancient myths and primitive art. Since 1941 he used pictorial “automatism”, creating biomorphic images with their mythical sense.

One of the most discussed works about his relationship with the movement is that of painter Armando Reverón (1889-1954), who during the 1930s created a series of works on paper that have been compared to those of Willem de Kooning. Large formats and action painting were also part of his work, although it was not until the forties when the first works in this style were produced.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the work of Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), important as a teacher. His painting had a cubist base, but became abstract in the forties, presenting in his paintings contrasting areas of color; the style is emotional and vigorous.

With the end of World War II and the return of many of the exiles to Europe, the surrealist influence eventually waned and the movement became more genuinely North American.

It was splitting into two trends that can be defined as action painting and color fields. The first one emphasized more the physical gesture of painting, while the second one focused on the application of color in large areas.

Action painting

Within abstract expressionism, action painting stands out, a differentiated tendency that is sometimes even used to name all these expressionist works. Although, as has been pointed out, the term action painting was used by the critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952, it had been used before. Thus, in Berlin in 1919, and in America around 1929, to designate Kandinsky”s first abstract compositions.

The center of interest of action painting is the gesture or movement of painting, also called “gestural painting” because of the primacy given to the pictorial procedure itself. The act of painting becomes a spontaneous gesture. It is a type of automatism that reflects the physical and psychological state of the painter. In this way, he eliminates the traditional limits between the painter and the painting, linking the action of painting with the artist”s biography.

The action painter par excellence is Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), who is considered the first painter to assimilate Gorky”s pictorial training. He is related to surrealism insofar as his pictorial work is based on “automatism”, on an automatic writing that pretends to reflect the psychic phenomena that take place inside the artist. Between 1938 and 1942 he worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and painted under the influence of Picasso, surrealism and Jungian psychoanalysis, which he used as therapy against his alcoholism. But in Pollock”s case, there were other sources of inspiration added. Thus, the culture of the North American Indians, with their symbolic forms and their sand paintings. Likewise, the work of the muralist Siqueiros, in whose experimental workshop he had occasion to work in 1936, using air pump and airbrush paint, as well as industrial synthetic pigments. This also led him to try other materials, such as varnish, aluminum or synthetic enamels.

Pollock would spread the canvas, usually untreated, on the ground, and run or dance around it and into it, spilling the paint evenly. Pollock did not work on the canvas but, many times, tucked into it. Indeed, he did not work on the canvas with traditional tools such as a brush or palette knife, but by dripping. Although he is sometimes pointed out as the inventor of this technique, the truth is that it is considered that it was already used by the surrealist Max Ernst. What can be said is that he popularized it in such a way that dripping is immediately associated with the work and person of Jackson Pollock, to the point that he was nicknamed “Jack the Dripper”, a play on words with “Jack the Ripper”.

Dripping consists of letting paint drip or drip from a container (tube, can or box) with a perforated bottom, which the painter held in his hand or, to a lesser extent, from a stick or a spatula. In this way painting was not something that was done with the hand, but with a gesture of the whole body. The large canvases were filled on all sides, uniformly, with color in the form of spots and threads that were mixed together. The painter added finer drips made with a cotton swab dipped in paint. Pollock began to use this technique in 1947, the year in which he participated in his last exhibition at the Art of this Century gallery.

That same year, Pollock spoke of this technique:

My painting does not come from the easel. I usually barely tension the canvas before I start, preferring instead to place it directly on the wall or on top of the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor is where I feel most comfortable, closest to the painting, and most able to participate in it, as I can walk around the canvas, work from any of its four sides, and literally get inside the painting. It is a method similar to that of the sand painters of the western Indian villages. That is why I try to stay away from traditional tools, such as easel, palette and brushes. I prefer sticks, palette knives and fluid paint that drips and runs off, or even a thick impasto made of sand, ground glass or other materials.

In this way, what Pollock captured on canvas “was not an image, but a fact, an action”.

Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline worked in the same line of action painting, with abstract and vigorous paintings, the former being another painter very influential in other later authors.

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) made more figurative works than Pollock, being something in between figuration and abstraction, he is gestural and representational at the same time. From 1946 he painted abstractions of biomorphic figures. His work focused first on representing the male figure, devoting himself, from 1950, to his best known series, Women. The female figure was identified by her enormous breasts, and her aggressive forms made them symbols of fertility and the nurturing mother, but also of the erotic or man-eating woman. She resorted to intense and vivid primary colors, using black and white to give touches that enhance the figures. His brushstrokes were violent, applying the paint in a totally impulsive manner.

Between action painting and color-field painting can be placed the synthesis work of Franz Kline (1910-1962) and Robert Motherwell (1915-1991).

As for Franz Kline, he works with brushstrokes. Like Pollock, his chromatic range is reduced, practically monochromatic: black, white and bluish gray. He opted for wide black stripes executed with vigorous brushstrokes on white surfaces. They were enlargements of details of his own drawings. The resulting paintings are reminiscent of those of the informalist Pierre Soulages or Chinese ideograms.

Black and white are also predominant colors in Robert Motherwell”s work. Sometimes he creates works in the form of collages. He moderated the surrealist automatism of his work until he reached a middle ground between abstract gesture and figurative fragmentation, his work being a synthesis of action painting and color field painting. His most famous series is the Elegy to the Spanish Republic, begun in 1949 and consisting of about 150 paintings; it is inspired by the Spanish Civil War, but not for its political significance but, above all, as a metaphor for eroticism and death. He was also a thinker who contributed to disseminate the work of the first generation of abstract expressionists.

Action painting was the trend that most influenced the second generation of abstract expressionism and many contemporary European painters. Among the Spanish artists, Esteban Vicente and José Guerrero deserve special mention.

Color-field painting

The color-field painting or “color-field painting” is another current within the New York School, anticipating minimalist painting.

Irving Sandler, critic and art historian, proposed to call color-field painting this last alternative to abstract expressionism, centered on color and its expressive possibilities.

It also emerged around 1947. They created paintings in which large areas of color dominated, all of them of equal intensity. There are no contrasts of light or color in their works. Drawing and gesture became simple. In many works they worked with a single color with different tonalities. They are paintings close to neoplasticism but, unlike him, the color areas are open, and seem to continue beyond the edges of the painting.

This trend includes the work of Clyfford Still (1901-1980), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Barnett Newman (1905-1970) and Enrico Accatino (1920-2007).

Clyfford Still was another artist who, in the 1930s, worked at the WPA. His style became progressively more abstract. His mature style is dominated by paintings with a black background, which he considered his “favorite non-color”. And, on it, vertical lines of irregular contour appeared, as if they were a kind of flames, in bright colors: yellow, orange or white.

Rothko”s artistic career began in the early 1940s with biomorphic figures intended to express mythical forms. But by 1947 his style underwent a change, focusing on geometrically shaped colored blotches, usually two or three horizontal rectangles. They were arranged on the surface of the painting in a frontal manner, one on top of the other in a symmetrical way. The colors, especially those of the rectangles, were luminous, with the background colors being more muted. Rothko created smooth surfaces. The contours are blurred. The impression offered by Rothko”s paintings is one of serenity, very different from the anguish and violence of the action painters.

The painting of color fields culminates with the work of Barnett Newman, whose work is based on a more radical conception that leads him to be considered within the post-pictorial sensibility and minimalism. His mature style is made up of paintings in which a single, flat, uniform color predominates, interrupted only by one or two thin vertical bands that the author calls “zips”. Unlike Rothko”s work, in his, the color fields have clear contours.

Ad Reinhardt (he used few colors: red, blue, black. He is also considered a precursor of minimalism, or a transitional figure towards this movement. He influenced mainly as a theorist, with writings such as his “Twelve rules for an academy” (Arts News, 1957), being credited with the expression “less is more” which became the motto of the minimalists.

Calligraphic painting

A minority current within abstract expressionism is formed by those painters who made the sign the protagonist of their paintings. It would be an intermediate modality between gestural painting and that of the color fields, in what could be called “abstract symbolism”. Through the sign, the painting is endowed with a gesturality, violence and freedom close to action painting. But, at the same time, it served to order the canvas by means of clear and controlled chromatic zones, which refers to the idea of delicate chromatism typical of color-field painting.Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1964) is framed within this trend. The content of his paintings came from the unconscious, as a claim inspired by surrealism. His mature work is characterized by an ochre-colored background in which a spherical stain stands out on which there is another intense yellow one.

Further development

Abstract expressionism developed in the United States over a period of approximately twenty years. It then spread to Europe, Japan and South America. The so-called second expressionist generation is made up of a series of artists, approximately thirty, who reached maturity in the fifties. Most of them feel the powerful influence of Jackson Pollock. Their work spread throughout Europe around 1964. Among them are:

Pollock also influenced artists not directly belonging to this second generation of expressionists, but rather abstract artists: Sam Francis, Grace Hartigan, J.P. Riopelle, P. Soulages, O. Debré and Antonio Saura.

The Abstract Expressionist movement influenced other pictorial trends such as European Informalism and Tachism. Action painting, in particular, was very influential in violent French Tachism.

It was the main trend in painting until the early 1960s when Pop Art and minimal art emerged (around 1962-1963). However, some minimalist painters were influenced by abstract expressionism, especially by the color-field painting trend.

In 1995, former U.S. officials confirmed rumors that had been circulating for several years that the artists of this movement were financed by the U.S. administration through the CIA secret services in order to turn it into an ideological weapon of the Western bloc in the context of the Cold War.

This cultural strategy saw Abstract Expressionism as a way to assert the creativity, intellectual freedom and artistic influence of the United States by contrasting the official art of the communist countries, Soviet socialist realism, as something codified, rigid and closed. Tom Braden, former head of the CIA”s international relations department and former executive secretary of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), stated in an interview, “I think it was the most important department of the CIA and I think it played a decisive role during the Cold War.”

This does not mean that abstract expressionism was a pure and simple creation of the CIA since the artists could ignore where the funds that financed them came from. Former agent Donald Jameson indicates that if the artists had sympathies for communism or the USSR, this favored the operation carried out by the CIA.

This desire on the part of U.S. leaders to present New York abstraction as the true artistic avant-garde and the new cultural reference was given concrete form through a vast program set up with substantial financial resources by the CIA. Thus was born “an unprecedented system of consecration of art” and of manufacturing the financial value of works in a network involving museums, foundations, universities, patrons and various associations. Gallerists such as Leo Castelli and the links he maintained with the management of the Museum of Modern Art were fundamental to this system. British historian Frances Stonor Saunders states that Abstract Expressionism would not have been recognized and celebrated as it was without the help of the CIA.

According to New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, the CIA manipulation thesis is reductionist. In an article entitled “Revisiting the Revisionists: The Modern, Its Critics and the Cold War”, he tries to show that this vision is erroneous or out of context. According to him, American artists of abstract expressionism were neither more nor less defended than figurative artists, filmmakers or writers of the same period by different governments. Christine Lindey”s book, Art in the Cold War, which describes Soviet art of the same period, or Francis Frascina”s Pollock and After, reiterate Michael Kimmelman”s arguments, underlining that the international recognition of American artists intervened in 1964 at the Venice Biennale with Pop art and Robert Rauschenberg.

Recognition that Serge Guilbaut presents as the culmination of the cultural policy carried out by the United States, Pop art replacing all aesthetic proposition with an adherence to the consumer society and reducing art to design. The fusion between abstract expressionism and Pop art led to the birth, at the end of the 20th century, of “contemporary art”, a production entirely subject to the laws of the market and animated by “creators” devoid of technical skills and independent of any aesthetic tradition.


  1. Expresionismo abstracto
  2. Abstract expressionism
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