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Abstract Expressionism

The term Abstract Expressionism originally gained currency during the 1920s as a description of Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract paintings. It was first used to describe contemporary painting by the writer Robert Coates, in the March 30, 1946, issue of the New Yorker. Abstract Expressionism’s most articulate advocates, the critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, originated the names Action painting and American-style painting, respectively. In the United States, Abstract Expressionism (or simply Ab Ex or even AE) was the name that stuck. The European variant was dubbed Art Informel by the French critic Michel TapiÉ in his 1952 book Un Art autre (Another art).

Abstract Expressionism was the first art movement with joint European-American roots, reflecting the influence of European artists who had fled Hitler-dominated Europe (Max Ernst, Fernand LÉger, Matta, and Piet Mondrian among them). Abstract Expressionists synthesized numerous sources from the history of modern painting, ranging from the expressionism of Vincent van Gogh to the abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky, from the saturated color fields of Henri Matisse to the organic forms and fascination with the psychological unconscious of the surrealist Joan Miró. Only geometric and realist art played no part in this mixture of intensely introspective and even spiritual elements, often painted on mural-size canvases.

Abstract Expressionism was less a style than an attitude. The calligraphic poured (or “drip”) paintings by Jackson Pollock, for instance, share little visually with the intensely colored, landscape-like fields by Mark Rothko. Of paramount concern to all the Abstract Expressionists was a fierce attachment to psychic self-expression. This contrasted sharply with the regionalism and social realism of the 1930s but closely paralleled postwar existential philosophy’s championing of individual action as the key to modern salvation. In existentialist fashion, Harold Rosenberg described the Action painter’s canvas as “an arena to act in,” in his influential essay “The American Action Painters,” published in the December 1952 issue of Artnews.

The term Abstract Expressionist has been applied to some postwar photography, sculpture, and ceramics, but in such cases it rarely clarifies meaning. Neither photography nor the welded constructivist works that constitute the best sculpture of that era allow for the spontaneous interaction with art-making materials that characterizes Abstract Expressionism. The term is appropriately applied to the ceramic sculpture of Peter Voulkos.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.