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Definition: “Abstract Expressionism”

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Also known as the New York School, or “action painting”, Abstract Expressionism is usually characterized by large abstract painted canvases, although the movement also includes sculpture and other media. Abstract Expressionism originated in the 1940s, and became popular in the 1950s.

Artists typically applied paint rapidly, and with force to huge canvases attempting to visualize feelings and emotions. They painted gesturally, non-geometrically, using large brushes or dripping or even throwing paint onto the canvas. The works depend heavily on what appears to be accidental but is actually highly planned. In most works there was no attempt to represent subject matter.

Although some work within this movement was not abstract, and some was not expressive, it overall idea that the spontaneity of the artists’ process would draw from their unconscious creativity. The process and method of expressive painting was considered by some as important as the resulting product.

Artists who painted in this style include:

  • Hans Hoffman (German-American, 1880-1966)
  • Adolph Gottlieb (American, 1903-1974)
  • Mark Rothko (American, 1903-1970)
  • Willem De Kooning (Dutch-American, 1904-1997)
  • Clyfford Still (American, 1904-1980)
  • Barnett Newman (American, 1905-1970)
  • ranz Kline (American, 1910-1962)
  • William Baziotes (American, 1912-1963)
  • Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956)
  • Philip Guston (American, 1913-1980)
  • Ad Reinhardt (American, 1913-1967)
  • Robert Motherwell (American, 1915-1991)
  • Sam Francis (American, 1923-1994)
  • Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928-)

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Author: Brown Miller

Brown Miller is the Media and Technology Director of the Art Foundation of Desert Hot Springs, CA. He is primarily engaged in the promotion of artists and the arts in general in the Coachella Valley, focusing on Desert Hot Springs. Miller's goal is to help Desert Hot Springs artists and arts organizations professionalize their operations and practices and get a cohesive creative community and economy established. He is involved with the Arts District Committee in Desert Hot Springs and has started an online community for cultural districts information at www.DesertArtsDistricts.org

2 thoughts on “Definition: “Abstract Expressionism”

  1. Usually artists who attempt to do this kinds of practice are very good at realism and this method is an escape from day to day practice of precise practice.

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    • That’s a very good observation and a good answer to the common remarks from non-artists like “my kid could do that”.

      Although abstract expressionism is sort of a therapeutic passtime for jaded professional artists, the results in many cases do manage tap into raw emotions and primal responses that are universal across observers of disparate backgrounds, ages, and socio-economic levels.

      That phenomenon has opened the way for many scientific research projects exploring the effects shapes and colors on the human psyche, and the way we interpret and process these sensory inputs. We actually owe much of what is known today about visual processing, both by humans and machines, to the work of abstract expressionists.

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