At Large  August 23, 2022  Effie Jackson

Abstract Expressionism: A Brief History & Exploration

Purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art. © The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Franz Kline, Mahoning, 1956. Oil and paper on canvas. 80 3/8 × 100 1/2 in. (204.2 × 255.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Born in the late nineteenth century, Modernism sought to challenge conventional institutions of its time. The late nineteenth century saw a shifting European political structure, with the birth of nation-states rising from the ashes of empires. This period was also significant in academic achievements and rapid industrialization.

Arguably beginning with the establishment of the Vienna Secession (1897-1914), Modernism centered around challenging historical art and pushed for new aesthetics within philosophy, architecture, and the traditional art world. Throughout the early twentieth century, various styles of the period would come together to form and inspire the umbrella of Modern art.

Although Modern art began as an antithesis of the conservative art institution of Europe during the turn of the twentieth century, it evolved into a reaction to and criticism of the horrors of World War I and World War II.

Movements like Dada and German Expressionism were a means of political criticism, freedom of expression, and ethical commentary against the chaos and rising antisemitism of Europe during WWI. German Expressionism specifically sought to invoke emotion in the masses by embracing the boldness of contrasting dark lines and the distortion of color, space, and scale. These attributes are significant since they were used in both art and film to convey the sociopolitical landscape of Germany under the Second Reich. German Expressionism drew inspiration from the Expressionist movement but abstracted it to reflect the impoverished landscape of German urban life, which would later inspire Abstract Expressionism.

Dadaism criticized WWI and embraced absurdity in visuals to reflect the chaos of Europe at the time. The nonsensical nature of Dadaism in turn inspired other styles of Modernism such as Surrealism, Pop Art, and Abstract Expressionism.

© 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-1952. Oil and metallic paint on canvas. 6 ft. 3-7/8 x 58 in. (192.7 x 147.3 cm.). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Art historian Robert C. Hobbs asserts that Abstract Expressionism was directly influenced by Surrealism. In the 1940s during WWII, Abstract Expressionists used emotion, unconventional techniques such as dripping and throwing paint, and automatic and spontaneous movement inspired by the subconscious to create this new style of Modernism.

Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism both depict the visual subconscious, therefore Hobbs argues that they are bound to be stylistically similar. Hobbs claims that Surrealism had more structure to it, with a clear order of subject, compared to Abstract Expressionism’s romantic nature. Each artist’s work is subjective and not mimicked by others within the style.

Other scholars argue that Cubism served as the precursor for Abstract Expressionism: An arguable influence from Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) can be seen in Woman I by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) due to both paintings’ use of primitivism for the female form. Where Surrealism focused more on creating dreamscapes, Abstract Expressionists used psychic automatism to form shapes and create art.


Mark Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950. Oil on canvas. Signed and dated on the reverse. 81 x 55 1/2 in. (205.8 x 141 cm.).

From the heavy use of psychic automatism to the use of color theory to represent the planes of existence, Abstract Expressionism not only serves as an invocation of emotion and the subconscious, but also as a representation of the metaphysical.

The works of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) are not only explorations of color theory, but are representations of the spiritual, serving to evoke emotion. Separating the canvas with various blocks of color, each piece is intended to bring out different emotions and experiences in the viewer. There is an emphasis on language without words, figures, or traditional composition that is a defining characteristic of Abstract Expressionism.

This visual communication through color can be seen in the work of other Abstract Expressionists like Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), and Franz Kline (1910-1962), all of whom worked with color theory in a mystical manner.

Despite being heavily publicized as one of the greatest Modern artists, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) embodied the spirit of Abstract Expressionism. His revolutionary spirit lent to some of the most notable characteristics of the style, such as splattering, smearing, and dripping paint onto the canvas. Pollock arguably took psychic automatism a step further than his predecessors, not using it as an exercise to find forms to paint, but by famously creating virtually nothing but automatic pieces. And yet, the spiritual aspect of Abstract Expressionism is not missing from his aesthetic. Modern and Contemporary Art scholar Samuel Hunter refers to Pollock’s body of art as undeniably American in temper, however rooted in radicalism and a spirituality unbound by borders.

About the Author

Effie Jackson

Effie Jackson is a contributing writer for Art & Object and graduated from UNC Asheville with a BA in Art History, where she received the University Research Scholar award in recognition for her undergraduate thesis. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Meredith College in preparation for a career in gallery/museum administration. When she is not working or studying, she loves doing yoga and playing with the family pup.

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