I admit, I didn’t really get Abstract Expressionism until I was in art school. I mean, what, you just spill some paint on a canvas and you end up with an instant masterpiece? Now though, I swear to God, I need ear plugs to go in the contemporary wing of the art museum, ’cause every time I hear, “I could paint that,” my urge to smack someone increases. It ain’t good for my blood-pressure folks.
The biggest thing you need to know about Abstract Expressionism is that you have to see these paintings in person. Now, I tend to think that is true for all art on general principal, but it is particularly true in this case. American painters have always tended to favor large canvases, but Abstract expressionists went for all out super big large huge huge canvases. We are talking dimensions upward of eight feet sometimes. When you stand in front of them, they take over your entire field of view and it makes an impression that a postage stamp sized picture does not. You will also pick up on subtle details that get lost in the resizing of the image. Sometimes there is a textural element that doesn’t convey easily in photos. Really, just go look at one in person before you make your final call.
To give a little context, this was a style largely popular in America post World War II through the end of the 50s. Previously, Socio-Realism was the big to do in American art but with McCarthy out on a witch hunt, suffice to say having the goal of your movement being the display of the struggles of the downtrodden wasn’t going to fly no more. So bring on the abstract, where, if a political statement is being made, it is buried under day’s worth of insider knowledge, so you probably won’t get in trouble for it. Also, New York had a sudden influx of European painters coming to escape the war. The heart of the western art world shifted from Paris to New York and American art was catapulted forward with the sudden influx of new ideas.
So what was going on with these painters (and some sculptors) anyway? What were they trying to do? Abstract Expressionism is actually beautifully simple. The goal is to convey rather than illustrate emotions. Rather than paint an image that was representative of an emotion, they wanted you to look at their paintings and feel. It’s very BOOM! and IN YOUR FACE! and OVERWHELMED! Remember that whole Kantian Sublime thing? Abstract Expressionism is very much about evoking sublimity through large images and vivid, almost frantic brushwork. A number of artists also link the abstract to the spiritual, or subconscious.
Another big important thing to understand about Abstract Expressionism is that it is not accidental or done without thought. They chose their mediums, their applications, and their images with a studied certainty, even if it is one that allows for a level of spontaneity and improvisation. Certainly if you ever see film of Pollock painting it looks a bit like he his just dripping paint all over the place willy-nilly. What’s really going on though is something closer to an improv performance. Yes there is an element of spontaneity, but it comes from a place of practiced craft that frees the artist to make split second decisions that will work well for the painting as a whole. Or in other words, no, your four year old could not paint this.
There are a few other terms you are likely to hear tossed around with Abstract Expressionism. Action Painting is a term used for paintings with a almost combative restlessness to them. It’s mainly an Abstract Expressionist thing, but it can also be applied to some more figurative work like that of Willem de Kooning. Color Field painting is a style that emphasizes color itself as the subject of the painting. These are often lumped in with Abstract Expressionism, but they don’t always really belong there. Clyfford Still was an Abstract Expressionist. Mark Rothko was, by his own proclamation, not. Generally speaking, Color Field painting tends to be calmer and more thoughtful than Abstract Expressionism.
Now you still may find yourself disliking Abstract Expressionism, and that’s fine. I know I find Pollock and de Kooning’s insistence that the style typified macho manly manness off-putting even though I tend to like the painting style as a whole. I have a lot of dear friends who are quite intelligent people who just can’t get into the style, or who prefer figurative work. I will not tell you that you are some philistine for feeling the same. But now you can dislike it with authority at least. Of course, I do hope that I have maybe, just maybe gotten a few of you interested in it.