In post-World War II America, several broadly different currents of artistic fashion came together to create the single most important art movement of the last half of the 20th century. The thoughtful experiments of the Avant Garde artists of the century’s early years—experiments that were often coldly intellectual—merged with the energetic innovation of the Post Impressionists and other Modernists, artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse, whose dynamic color and technique were intent on expressing the artist’s inner life in the work.
Faced with painting that didn’t fit into any established categories, critics came up with a new name for this kind of art, a name that acknowledged its debt to both the intellectual theories of abstractionists and the emotional goals of the Expressionists. They called this new style Abstract Expressionism.
Expressionism was a deeply emotional movement that was confined primarily to Europe, and where the trend toward abstraction was influential in America, it was applied to distinctly American themes, as in the work of Georgia O’Keefe and the Precisionists. In the years between World War I and World War II, American artists were more likely to paint abstracted landscapes or cityscapes than either purely abstract compositions or profoundly expressive subjects.
That changed in the 1940s, when a student of the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton began doing something radically different. Jackson Pollock set up a studio in a little outbuilding near his house on Long Island in 1945, and inside that studio he tried a painting technique that would drastically change the direction of modern art. He laid a canvas flat on the studio floor, and he stood over the canvas with a brush and a can of paint. He dipped the brush into the paint, entirely saturating it, and then he dripped, flung and splattered the paint onto the canvas, never directly touching the brush to the canvas.
The technique was a sensation. It came to be known as “action painting,” not just because it was created in a flurry of action, but because that action could be easily seen in the finished painting, well after the action was done; you could understand exactly how Pollock created the painting just by looking at it. This obvious and direct relationship between the act of creating the painting and the finished work was new, and it gave viewers an immediate connection to the creative process and the emotional expression of the artist.
Artists and critics were excited by this new way of creating and looking at painting, and artists were quick to develop the possibilities suggested by Pollock’s work. Some painters explored the notion that Abstract Expressionism was about revealing the creative process on the canvas; these gestural painters, such as Arshile Gorky, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Mark Tobey and Helen Frankenthaller, were concerned mostly with techniques that emphasized the way that the paint made it onto the canvas, with subject matter and technical refinement taking a back seat to expression.
Other Abstract Expressionists focused on the abstract aspect of the movement. Artists like Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman worked to remove any reference to the outside world from their paintings. Their paintings were about nothing other than the painting itself; the paintings didn’t represent anything, and some of the painters even took steps to erase the evidence of the creative process from their work, an approach that was in direct contrast to the work of the gestural painters.
The legacy of Abstract Expressionism is a philosophy of art that privileges the visual impact of the work over everything else. Abstract Expressionism doesn’t pursue representation or illusion. It’s not trying to be anything other than simply what it is: color, shape and gesture on a surface. This philosophy gives the artist freedom, a freedom that was unheard of even in the 19th century, and it became the foundation of modern art as it moved into the last half of the 20th century and beyond.