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Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionist artists reinvented abstract painting—and other media—forming a distinctly American style.

The Processes and Materials of Abstract Expressionist Painting

Discover the innovative tecniques of Abstract Expressionist painters

Abstract Expressionism: A New Art for a New World

After the atrocities of World War II, many artists felt that the world needed to be reinvented

The Sublime and the Spiritual

Abstract Expressionists used color and scale to create a sense of spirituality and the sublime

Abstract Expressionist Sculpture

Explore how sculptors took on the challenges of Abstract Expressionism

The political strife in Europe brought about by World War II forced many artists to emigrate to the United States, bringing with them their own traditions and ideas. A number of American artists looked to the Surrealists (who were interested in exploring the unconscious and the archaic as universal symbols that could resonate with all of humanity) while creating a distinctly American style. Adolph Gottlieb, for example, infused his work with imagery inspired by Native American sources. Others, like Clyfford Still, were so disillusioned by the horrors of war that they chose to eschew traces of European tradition altogether. As Barnett Newman said, “After the monstrosity of the war, what do we do? What is there to paint? We have to start all over again.”

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.

In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.

The dominant artistic movement in the 1940s and 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the first to place New York City at the forefront of international modern art. The associated artists developed greatly varying stylistic approaches, but shared a commitment to an abstract art that powerfully expresses personal convictions and profound human values. They championed bold, gestural abstraction in all mediums, particularly large painted canvases.

Abstract Expressionism and Psychoanalysis
Like the Surrealists before them, many Abstract Expressionist painters were interested in psychoanalysis and the theories of Carl Jung, who identified certain myths and archetypes indicative of what he called a collective unconscious. In the 1940s, artists like Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock believed that they could use universal symbols to evoke certain emotions in the viewer.

Questions & Activities

  1. Artists and the Past

    Barnett Newman said, “After the monstrosity of the war, what do we do? What is there to paint? We have to start all over again.”

    Can artists ever completely shed tradition to create a new kind of art? Or are artists always bound to the art that came before them?

    Reflect. Share your ideas in a one-page essay. Point to specific visual details in the works of Newman and other Abstract Expressionist to support your argument.

  2. Make a Monument

    In the 1960s, Barnett Newman created Broken Obelisk as a monument to his times. What would a monument representing the early 2000s look like? What kind of materials would you use to make it? What would it celebrate or critique about the present moment?

    Draw or write a description of this modern-day monument.