Abstract expressionism primarily refers to an art movement that arose in New York City after World War II in which painters created large, gestural art. However, Abstract Expressionism came from a series of artistic movements that included art both abstract and expressionistic, and understanding Abstract Expressionism requires knowledge of not only its heritage but also its legacy.
Expressionism In Art: "Expressionism," if defined as an artistic emphasis on emotional impact over representing physical reality, existed in art long before Modern Art, such as in Mannerism (16th century) or Baroque Art (17th century), but the term generally is applied only to art created in the 20th century. This art can include work from many media, including visual arts, sculpture, music, theater, cinema, literature and, to a lesser extent, architecture.
Expressionist Painting: In reaction to the late 19th century's Impressionists, who sought to create more accurate depiction of reality through subtleties in brushstrokes and paint tonalities, came the first wave of Expressionist painters in the early 20th century. The loose "Fauve" (wild beasts) movement included painters like Matisse, who utilized colors, shape and composition in an exaggerated, intense manner, emphasizing the emotional qualities of the image. German expressionists were inspired by this movement and became prominent in the first two decades of the 20th century. Following this, the Surrealists, while depicting representational objects in eerie and unconventional ways, borrowed much from Expressionism and in turn influenced the new wave of Abstract Expressionists after World War II.
The Abstract Expressionists: After World War II, American artists inspired by Surrealist painters, many of whom had fled to the United States during the war, began the exciting art movement of Abstract Expressionism, also known as the "New York School." Like Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists sought to unlock the mysteries of the unconscious through art, though they emphasized the fluid, open, creative process over the intentionally weird imagery of Surrealist paintings. Whether figurative, like Willem de Kooning's "Woman" series, or purely abstract, like Jackson Pollock's work, all Abstract Expressionist art shared the same characteristics of fluidity and energy in the brushwork and vibrancy in the coloration.
Jackson Pollock: Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is perhaps the most well-known example of Abstract Expressionism, as he pioneered many of the techniques that inspired this school of painters. Despite the spontaneous look of his enormous, free-flowing paintings, Pollock frequently planned out his work in advance. The uniqueness of his approach came in how he tackled his canvasses, placed on the floor rather than an easel, from the top-down and all sides and in the variety of methods he used for applying paint, from hurling it upon the canvas to drizzling it as he walked across and around his work.
Many scholars include the "color field" style of painting within the field of Abstract Expressionism, but this inclusion tends to result in comments about how all Abstract Expressionism is not necessarily "expressionistic." For the sake of simplicity, this article considers "color field" art-including the work of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, among others-as a separate category, and includes only "action painting" or "Gestural Abstractionist" art as Abstract Expressionism.