The Abstract Expressionism art movement stands as a defining era in American art history. This artistic revolution emerged in the wake of World War II, reshaping the landscape of contemporary art and introducing the world to an entirely new way of artistic expression.
Abstract Expressionism art movement emerged in New York City and is recognised as the first major American artistic movement to develop independently of European Styles.
In this article, we will look into the roots of Abstract Expressionism, its key artists and the pivotal role played by women in this art movement.
What is Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism is a post-World War II art movement in American painting that developed in New York City in the 1940s.
It was the first specifically American movement to achieve international influence and put New York at the centre of the art world.
The movement is characterised by an emphasis on dynamic, energetic gestures, in contrast to a reflective, cerebral focus on more open fields of colour.
Even when depicting images based on visual realities, the Abstract Expressionists favoured a highly abstracted mode.
Within abstract expressionism were two broad groupings: the so-called action painters, who attacked their canvases with expressive brush strokes; and the colour field painters who filled their canvases with large areas of a single colour.
The artists were inspired by the surrealist idea that art should come from the unconscious mind and by the automatism of artist Joan Miró.
The varied work produced by the Abstract Expressionists resists the definition of a cohesive style; instead, these artists shared an interest in using abstraction to convey strong emotional or expressive content.
Abstract Expressionism is best known for large-scale paintings that break away from traditional processes, often taking the canvas off of the easel and using unconventional materials such as house paint.
The movement has been largely depicted throughout historical documentation as one belonging to the paint-splattered, heroic male artist.
However, there were several important female Abstract Expressionists who arose out of New York and San Francisco during the 1940s and ’50s and now receive credit as elemental members of the canon.
The Birth of Abstract Expressionism
Before the ascent of Abstract Expressionism, the American art world was primarily dominated by two movements: Regionalism and Social Realism. Any art was often seen as European, deemed non-sensical and held as worthless.
However, the turmoil of World War II ushered in a significant transformation in the American art scene. European artists like Mondrian, Chagall and Andre Berton, who were fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, sought refuge in the United States.
This influx of creative talent would have a profound impact on the burgeoning American art landscape.
In the summer of 1941, the visionary Peggy Guggenheim and her surrealist husband, Max Ernst, escaped Europe for the shores of America.
Guggenheim opened the iconic Art of this Century gallery in New York City, where she showcased European modern artists such as Picasso, Braque, Dali and Miro to the American Public.
More importantly, she provided a platform for emerging American painters, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Robert Motherwell, all of whom would become pioneers of the Abstract Expressionism art movement.
The Visionary Patron – Peggy Guggenheim’s Pivotal Role
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Peggy Guggenheim in the development of Abstract Expressionism.
As Lee Krasner aptly put it, “Art of this Century was of the utmost importance as the first place where The New York School could be seen. Her Gallery was the foundation; it’s where it all started to happen.”
Peggy Guggenheim was truly a fascinating woman who made her mark on the art world in so many ways.
Born to wealth in 1898 in New York City, Peggy rebelled against high society life from a young age, drawn instead to the Bohemian and avant-garde. She opened her first art gallery called “Guggenheim Jeune” in London in the late 1930s.
When World War II broke out, she closed her London gallery and moved to Paris. In 1941 as the Nazis advanced, she managed to flee to New York with her incredible collection of modern art including numerous surrealist works.
Later in life, she retired to Venice and lived in the famous Palazzo Venier dei Leoni which houses her vast art collection to this day.
The Peggy Guggenheim Museum is one of Venice’s top attractions for art lovers. What an adventurous, free-spirited woman who truly altered the course of modern art through her bold vision and support of groundbreaking artists!
I could go on and on about her remarkable life and legacy.
Peggy Guggenheim – Role and contribution to the art world
Peggy Guggenheim made monumental contributions to the New York art world in the 1940s and beyond, not only through her support of Abstract Expressionism but across many spheres. Her direct impact included:
- She opened the groundbreaking Art of This Century gallery in New York in 1942, which was designed collaboratively with avant-garde artist Frederick Kiesler. The gallery space broke new ground by exhibiting Surrealist, Cubist and Abstract Expressionist artworks in an innovative way that transported viewers into the art.
- Guggenheim discovered and promoted several avant-garde artists who became hugely influential. She gave Jackson Pollock his first solo exhibition in 1943, bringing the unknown artist into the limelight. She also purchased many early Pollock paintings.
- Her support provided financial stability for numerous artists. For example, she gave painter Jackson Pollock a stipend of $300 a month and a loan to buy a house. She also purchased works directly from artists like Hans Hofmann and Adolph Gottlieb, providing them with critical income.
- She sold major artworks very inexpensively to important museums and collectors, helping build their modern art collections. Examples include selling Kandinsky’s “Studio Angelico” to the Museum of Modern Art and Pollock’s “Mural” to the University of Iowa.
- Her 1946 memoir “Out of This Century” brought attention to Surrealism and Dadaism in the US. Her eclectic circle of artists, writers and intellectuals in New York fostered creativity and exchange of ideas.
So in summary, Guggenheim’s vision, risk-taking, and financial support directly nurtured Modern art in the US and enabled many pivotal artists to thrive and gain recognition.
She made an enormous impact on the direction of American art.
Abstract Expressionism Challenging the Conservatism – The Irascible 18
Despite its revolutionary potential, Abstract Expressionism faced significant opposition in the conservative American art world.
In 1950, a group of artists penned an open letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, opposing the institution’s conservative stance on modern art.
The Met had organised an exhibition titled “American Painting Today – 1950 “ and appointed a jury that was openly hostile to Abstract Expressionists.
This protest was initiated by Adolph Gottlieb and the open letter was signed by 18 artists, including:
Willem de Kooning
In part, it declared, “The undersigned painters reject the monster national exhibition to be held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next December and will not submit work to its jury.”
The controversy surrounding this letter thrust the Abstract Expressionists into the public eye and the Herald Tribune promptly labelled them “The Irascible 18,” with ‘irascible’ meaning “having or showing a tendency to be easily angered.”
The Power of Image: Life Magazine’s Influence
The influential Life Magazine, renowned for propelling Jackson Pollock to fame just two years earlier, sought to capture the essence of Abstract Expressionism.
They planned a photo story to coincide with the announcement of the winners of the Met’s contest. Initially, the magazine wanted to photograph the artists holding their paintings in front of the Metropolitan Museum.
However, this proposal was declined because it would have given the impression that they were being turned away from the institution.
Adolph Gottlieb, reflecting on this decision, said, “They were very surprised at this because nobody refuses anything to Life Magazine.”
On 24th November 1950, Nina Leen photographed 15 avant-garde artists in a studio on West 44th Street.
In this iconic photograph, we see not rebels seeking to revolutionise or dismantle the art world but individuals critiquing its conservative bias. These were well-dressed middle-class people, striving to bring a new modern American art into the world.
The Legends – Abstract Expressionist Artists
The Abstract Expressionism movement was shaped by the contributions of many artists, both men and women.
A number of influential abstract expressionist painters, including women such as Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, played significant roles in the development of this artistic style.
These female artists made important innovations in abstract painting alongside their male counterparts like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. The Abstract Expressionist movement was defined by the creative visions of both genders.
The contributions of these and many other abstract expressionist artists, both male and female, were crucial in making the Abstract Expressionism movement what it was. Here is a list of some of the artists in no particular order:
Pioneer of all-over compositions where the entire canvas was treated as one unified field.
As one of the earliest abstract expressionists, Krasner helped define the movement. Her all-over composition style dispersed focus across the entire canvas instead of concentrating on a central point. This brought a new way of looking at and engaging with a painting.
Jackson Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner was immersed in abstract expressionism from the beginning. In fact, she was experimenting with abstract collage styles in the 1930s before Pollock.
Krasner introduced Pollock to contemporary ideas like Surrealism and Cubism that she felt could take his art in a more avant-garde direction.
As Pollock rose to fame, Krasner worked doggedly promoting his art to museums and collectors. Her efforts helped cement his reputation.
But beyond being Pollock’s wife and publicist, Krasner was an innovative abstract painter in her own right. Her bold collage pieces of the 1940s and the all-over style of her later abstracts made her a pioneer of the movement.
One of the pioneering female artists in Abstract Expressionism, Mitchell’s expressive, gestural brushwork captured the essence of this movement.
Known for her large abstract paintings exploring emotion through energetic brushstrokes. Her emotionally expressive paintings inspired by landscape broke from Action Painting’s focus on the canvas itself. Mitchell liberated abstraction to deal with personal subject matter in a raw, improvisational way.
Joan Mitchell also brought new stylistic vitality to abstract expressionism through her energetic, emotionally charged canvases. She fused action painting’s physicality with a lyrical expression of colour and feeling influenced by French Impressionism.
Along with Frankenthaler, Mitchell led the expansion of abstract painting in more varied directions. As an influential teacher, she passed on Action Painting’s spontaneous techniques to younger artists. Mitchell created some of her most renowned abstractions in the 1970s, including dynamic multi-panel paintings.
She was one of the few female artists to achieve major recognition at the time.
Innovator of the “soak stain” painting technique where thinned paint is soaked into unprimed canvas.
Her stained canvases opened the door for the Colour Field style, directly inspiring artists like Morris Louis. Frankenthaler’s fluid, spontaneous style also expanded the creative possibilities for gestural abstraction. She said she wanted a paintbrush to feel “like an extension of the arm.”
Elaine de Kooning
Wife of Willem de Kooning, she created energetic abstract landscapes and portraits. Elaine was an influential critic and teacher.
De Kooning’s synthesis of energetic abstract gestures with figurative elements created a dynamic, spontaneous style. Her tenure as art critic and editor also helped promote acceptance of the new abstraction.
Hartigan’s focus on the paint itself as subject matter highlighted the materiality and creative process of painting. Her unique techniques like incorporating newspaper transfer images expanded abstraction.
Her unique blend of abstraction and representation helped redefine the boundaries of Abstract Expressionism.
Hartigan’s bold, Matisse-inspired paintings fused abstraction with figurative elements. She was a prominent member of the New York School.
Janet Sobel was a Ukrainian-born artist who pioneered the “drip” painting technique that directly influenced Jackson Pollock.
Sobel is the first artist to use the drip painting technique.
Sobel created her own unique drip paintings years before Jackson Pollock was immortalised in the pages of Life magazine.
(I’ve written more details about Janet Sobel in this article: Who was the First Drip Painting Artist? Not Jackson Pollock).
Sobel’s painting “Milky Way” (owned by the MoMa) was created in 1945, two years before Jackson Pollock began experimenting with drip painting.
Sobel also presented a solo show at The Art of This Century gallery, the brochure for the show was written by Sidney Janis. As described, some of her work is related to the so-called “drip paintings” of Jackson Pollock, who admitted that these pictures had made an impression on him.
These women Abstract Expressionist artists brought fresh perspectives and techniques to the Abstract Expressionist movement while asserting themselves in the male-dominated art world. Their pioneering artistic visions were integral to shaping this major 20th century art style.
Through their painting styles, criticism and teaching, these artists all opened new directions in abstract painting and discourse, paving the way for future artists. Their bold visions fundamentally shaped Abstract Expressionism.
Pollock really splashed onto the scene with his drip painting style. He would lay his canvas on the floor and drizzle, splash and paint onto them with sticks, trowels – whatever he could get his hands on.
The result was intricate webs of paint that captured the energy and motion of his creative process. People just couldn’t take their eyes off his hypnotic compositions.
Willem de Kooning
De Kooning slathered thick oil paints on canvases, using vigorous brushstrokes to capture abstract figures and forms that seemed to lunge off the canvas.
He loved to improvise as he worked, following his artistic instincts to portray the vitality of the human experience.
Rothko took a more meditative approach, creating fields of luminous colour that draw you into a transcendent experience.
Those hazy blocks of colour pulse and resonate, encouraging a contemplative state as you stand before them.
Rothko really wanted viewers to have a one-on-one spiritual interaction with his artwork.
He was all about exploring the emotive potential of colour through his huge abstract paintings.
Still applied paint in jagged flashes and swaths, provoking strong sensations as his fields of bright colour seem to shimmer and vibrate.
For Still, abstract painting was the purest way to express human emotion.
Known for his iconic “zip” paintings, Newman contrasted expansive fields of colour with narrow vertical bands called “zips.”
A deceptively simple concept that created monumental works meant to immerse viewers, strip away distractions and highlight the act of perception.
His minimalist approach emphasised the emotive power of colour and form.
Guston was an important member of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, who abandoned all figurative or realistic references in his work by 1950.
His characteristic style developed shortly thereafter in his “White Painting” series.
Guston’s work has been described as “abstract Impressionism” due to his use of small, hatched brushstrokes to build up a central area of delicate colour on a canvas of white background.
Guston’s art is known for its political and social commentary and his most radical period of abstract expressionism was during the late 1950s.
So while their styles varied, these pioneers of Abstract Expressionism all used painting to delve into emotion, experience and sensation through colour, gesture and form alone. No recognisable figures or subjects are needed!
Their bold, expressive artwork totally transformed the art world.
Iconic Examples of Abstract Expressionism Art
Even though I’ve written a number of articles about abstract art and abstract artists, I can never seem to offer them the respect they truly deserve.
Choosing which of these incredible Abstract Expressionist artists’ particular works to include in my article is one of the most difficult situations I encounter while writing about them.
I hope you will enjoy the following selection of abstract art masterpieces.
Final Thoughts About Abstract Expressionism
So that’s a quick rundown of the Abstract Expressionism art movement and some of the leading female abstract expressionists!
When you take a step back, it’s really remarkable how much this radical artistic movement shifted the art world in the mid-20th century.
The Abstract Expressionist movement, as pioneered by artists like Pollock, de Kooning and Frankenthaler, totally redefined painting.
Their bold, experimental styles broke free from traditional notions about art. The Abstract Expressionism movement gave artists permission to forgo realism and convey emotion directly through abstract forms and dynamic paint handling.
It’s also inspiring to see the critical role that women of Abstract Expressionism played in this avant-garde movement.
Female abstract expressionists like Krasner, Mitchell and Hartigan made major innovations right alongside their male counterparts.
They were bold visionaries who contributed their unique creative energy and perspectives. The Abstract Expressionist movement simply wouldn’t have been the same without these groundbreaking women.
And that wraps up our whirlwind tour through the Abstract Expressionism art movement and some of its legendary artists!
I don’t know about you, but learning about this art movement has me itching to visit a museum soon to see some of these works in person.
There’s only so much you can get from a picture or description – to really appreciate the textures, scales and energy, you have to stand before a Pollock, Mitchell, or Krasner creation.
So if you’ve had the chance to view any Abstract Expressionist works firsthand, I’d love for you to share your impressions in the comments!
What resonated with you? Did any paintings make you feel a certain emotion or get lost in the marks across the canvas?
I’m also curious which artists you’d most like to see represented in more exhibitions.
And if you’re not already familiar with Abstract Expressionism, which artists intrigue you based on what we’ve covered?
I always enjoy chatting with readers and learning new perspectives, so please share your thoughts on this captivating art movement.
The comment section awaits your unique insights.
Other related articles: