Abstract Expressionism

Introduction to Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism started in America as a post World War II art movement. It was the first art movement that arose from America and put New York at the center of the art world. The term Abstract Expressionism was first applied to American art in 1946 by art critic Robert Coates. It is most commanly said that Surealism is its predecessor because of the use of spontaneous, automatic and subconscious creations.
Abstract Expressionism gets its name from the combining of emotional intensity and self-expression of German Expressionists and the anti-figurative aesthetics of abstract schools where Futurism, Bauhaus and Synthetic Cubism came from. The term Abstract Expressionism was applied to any number of the artists in New York who each had quite different styles, such as Pollocks action paintings which had a very busy feel to it, which was different both technically and aesthetically to Willem de Koonings grotesque womens series, which was rather violent and not particularly abstract, and Mark Rothkos block work which was not very expressionistic, but yet all three were classified as Abstract Expressionists.


Still although different in many ways they still share many similar aspects such as the use of large canvases, an all over approach in which the whole canvas is treated equally, every part of the canvas is important, quality of brushstrokes and textures, the use of accidents that play an important role to the entire work and the attempt to express pure emotion directly onto a canvas.

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The early Abstract Expressionists went in seek for a timeless and powerful subject matter, and started looking at primitive myth and archaic art for inspiration. Most of the early Abstract Expressionists looked at ancient and primitive cultures for inspiration. The earliest works included pictographic and biomorphic elements referred into personal code. In a famous letter published in the New York Times in June 1943 by Gottlieb and Rothko which was assisted by Newman, said To us, art is an adventure into an unknown world of the imagination which is fancy- free and violently opposed to comman sense. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is critical.. This just says that there is basically always a deeper meaning to a painting and if there is none then it is not a good painting. They draw away from comman sense and subject matter is very important. This also adds emphasis on how art relates to a specific period in time, and what inspires it, or what reaction art has against or for an event that is happening at that time.
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko born September 25 1903 and died in February 25 1970. He was an Abstract Expressionist but denies that his work is abstract. He was born as Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia and the emigrated to the United States in 1916.
His work was based on basic emotions and mainly filling his canvases with few but intense colours using little detail. He also combined mythical themes with primordial imagery in order to express universal experiences. In this time his paintings showed biomorphic shapes that float within an atmospheric haze. Although other artists were inspired by him his work was still frowned apon by others that did not understand it and so had to support himself by teaching art. Rothko became known for his large murals for different buildings and public places where it was displayed such as The Rothko Chapel a church in Houston, Texas. Rothkos work was secretly supported by The CIA which considered it free enterprise painting. Rothko committed suicide in 1970 as he suffered from depression in his New York studio.


Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red)

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red), 1949. Oil on canvas, 81 1/2 x 66 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Gift, Elaine and Werner Dannheisser and The Dannheisser Foundation. 78.2461. 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Rothko said that the familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment. With this he develops a unique compositional structure of 2 or 3 horizontals divided by a large primarily vertical canvas. He used this highly unique format for his paintings from 1950 till his death in 1970.


In works such as this one he looked at the power of the simple expression of the complex thought. His reduced format for his work allowed the colour to attain a transcendent expression. Edges and boundaries of his shapes were soft, frayed and feathered almost merging colour into background. This effect was done by the use of rags and sponges and not brushes.


For 20 years Mark Rothko explored the expressive potential of stacked rectangular fields of luminous colours. Just like many of the other Abstract Expressionists he expressed human emotion in his paintings, striving to create an awe-inspired intensity in his work. Many seem to think that many of his work is inspired by religious iconography which is evident in many of his later work. This painting metaphorically encompasses human life from cradle to grave. The rectangles could be read vertically as an abstracted Virgin bisected by horizontal divisions that indicate Christ, which again makes reference to religion. Most of his pieces usually larger than a human have some sort of reference with religious or landscape paintings. It was Rothkos pure colour use that made critics praise him and call him a colourist and a sensualist. His work was also seen to him as a battlefield of war against opposites probably inspired by World War II where he saw hot versus cold colours and vertical versus horizontal. The simplification of his work is not a formal exercise, but a vehicle to experience powerful emotion and revelation. Through this Rothko believed that his viewers could have a religious experience. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotionstragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so onand the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions.


Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning was born April 24 1904 and died March 19 1997 and was born in Rotterdam in The Netherlands. He studied there at The Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and went to New York in 1926. He started off making a living as a house painter then later became an art teacher. From around 1928 he started painting still life and figure compositions having the school of Paris and Mexican as his influences.
In the early 1930s he started to explore the use of biomorphic shapes and geometric compositions which became evident in all of his works. He was inspired by Pablo Picasso and many surrealists such as Joan Miro.


In 1938 he started to embark on male figure paintings, which include Two Men Standing, Man and Seated Figure. As he continued to explore his work, the heightened colours and elegant lines of abstractions started to become evident. His figures went well into the 1940s and in 1948 he started a series of large abstractions in black and white made from household enamels, since he was to poor to afford art supplies. These works were prime examples of the cohesively positive and negative spaces, without representational allusions. He used black and white paint rather than leaving the white of the canvas to come through which would suggest figures in a landscape setting. Sweeping white rivers of paint rush across the dark black ground, creating writhing intertwining shapes that suggest figures in a landscape setting, but without any specificity whatsoever.
He started to explore female figures in the 1940s but it was not till 1950 he started to do female figures exclusively. He had his work shown in the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953 which caused a sensation because they were mainly figures of his fellow abstractionists and they were painted with blatant technique and imagery. He applied his medium in such a way that it looks as though it was vomited on but to reveal a woman in what would seam as some mens most widely held sexual fears.


His later works from around the 1980s can be very debatable for the fact that he was diagnosed with Alzheimers Disease so his works became clean,sparse and almost graphic.Many say his paintings at this stage were an effects of the attempting recovery of alcoholism.

Black Untitled, 1948
Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands, 19041997)Oil and enamel on paper, mounted on wood; 29 7/8 x 40 1/4 in. (75.9 x 102.2 cm)From the Collection of Thomas B. Hess, Gift of the heirs of Thomas B. Hess, 1984 (1984.613.7)