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14.4: Abstract Expressionism

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    Native Country

    William De Kooning


    Robert Motherwell

    United States

    Lee Krasner

    United States

    Paul Jackson Pollock

    United States

    Mark Rothko

    United States

    Helen Frankenthaler

    United States

    Jean-Michel Basquiat

    United States

    Edgar Heap of Birds

    United States

    Abstract Expressionism was a post-war art movement in American painting, beginning in New York, putting the city at the center of the art world for the first time. Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, and Motherwell all attended the New York School together, learning an abstract style of art that emphasized impulsive or subconscious creation with art mediums. Abstract Expressionism is as diverse as the artist who claims to be abstract expressionist. Painting became an event, something to throw, something to explore, something to express, creating the term 'action painting'. It was also a reaction to the political movement during the 1960s in America and revitalized the art world. Some artists considered painting a physical as seen in the large canvases of Pollock; others were expressing their subconscious interpretations in their artwork.

    William De Kooning (1904–1997) was born in the Netherlands and studied at the Rotterdam Academy. De Kooning moved to New York and joined the abstract movement. He was part of the New York School that included Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. Early in his career, he focused on black and white with little color using mixed media. De Kooning was an experimentalist and was not afraid to shift between styles of art. He started his well-known series of women hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, showing a post cubist style of figures. Excavation (14.18) is one of his larger paintings supposedly based on women who were toiling in rice fields. The strong lines define the abstracted anatomical parts of humans, birds, and fish. The original background was white with bright slashes of color. De Kooning worked in multiple layers, building and scraping the paint.

    14.18 Excavation

    Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) was the youngest of the artists originally part of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. He received his early training at Stanford, Harvard, and Columbia, as well as working with some of the Surrealist painters. Motherwell was a painter and printmaker who was inspired by the defeat of the Spanish Republic by fascist militaries in early 1939 and created a significant series of artwork based on the conflict. He frequently used the reoccurring motif of rough black shapes, repeating it in many sizes and distortion and compaction. As seen in the painting, Two Figures with Stripe (14.19), Motherwell used the oval as the primary figure shape, adding abstract details and bringing the jarring diagonal stripe across the painting. He frequently used the contrasting black and white forms to portray oppressions, death, or resistance.

    14.19 Two Figures with Stripe

    Lee Krasner (1908–1984) was an American artist who attended the National Academy of Design. Krasner was one of the few successful female artists of the time during abstract expressionism. During the depression, she worked on the WPA Art Project, creating large murals. It was hard for an abstract expressionist to paint the figurative scene, but Krasner needed to support herself. Becoming a member of the Artists Union in New York helped her meet other abstract artists, including her future husband and artist, Jackson Pollack.

    14.87 Shattered Color
    14.20 Shattered Color

    She divided her work into different stages or series. In her first series, Krasner worked on canvas and added paint, scraped and rubbed it off, and added more and continued the cycle so the work would become gray from so many paint layers. She destroyed these works, and only one survives today. Her next series was the Little Image series of about forty paintings. She built up thick paint with hieroglyphs and added drips to the images. With so much paint, she again ended up with a little variation of color but much texture.

    14.88 Alice in Wonderland
    14.21 Alice in Wonderland

    In the early 1950s, she created a series of collage paintings. She pasted cut and torn shapes on the canvas and added color with paint. She contrasted light and dark colors and made soft and hard lines. After her husband, Pollack, died in a car accident, Krasner began the Earth Green series. The intense emotional brush strokes on the extra-large canvas and unconventional self-expression with paint drips portrayed her feelings. Shattered Color (14.20) is an example of her chunky spots of paint applied in multiple colors. She struggled as an artist in the shadow of Pollack and being labeled his wife first and an artist second. Krasner continued to paint until her death in 1984. The parody of Alice in Wonderland(14.21) is an example of Krasner’s use of hard-edge lines with open spaces and exaggerated forms.

    Paul Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) was an American painter in abstract expressionism and well-known for his style of drip painting, as seen in Alchemy (14.22). He usually tacked a large piece of canvas to the floor and poured paint on the canvas, moving it around with a stick. The painting has layers of paint, each layer building the depth on the canvas. Using the same technique, Greyed Rainbow (14.23) displays thick chunks of paint interspersed with thin meandering lines in gray, white, and black. Hidden near the bottom are multiple bright colors.

    Pollack seems to have broken through the glass ceiling in art with his 'drip' paintings and went on to become a famous painter in his own time, even though he died relatively young in a car accident in 1956. He became the symbol of American abstract painting.

    14.22 Alchemy
    Greyed Rainbow
    14.23 Greyed Rainbow

    Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970) was an American painter of Russian-Jewish descent. Rothko was part of the abstract expressionism movement and influenced by primitive art and color. The organic paintings appear to have only a few simple colors (14.24, 14.25), yet the effects of the simplistic outer color are the brilliance of the under colors. The paintings are devoid of any figures or shapes; it is a silence of color, yet the color is screaming at the same time. There is not a top or bottom and must be seen in person to understand and admire the work.

    Rothko was intent on making art that was different because he felt art had hit a dead end. Commercialism and visual images were everywhere, and Rothko's paintings provided a respite for the viewer, cut through the white noise of everyday life, and made the multi-forms of color meant to overwhelm the viewer. Despite his fame, Rothko committed suicide in 1970 after painting 836 canvases.

    clipboard_e2f8445a64b2799c67e4e4558bd4d3a8d.png14.24 Number 14
    Black, Red over Black on Red
    14.25 Black, Red over Black on Red

    Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) was born in New York and studied art at the university, recognized early in her life as an accomplished artist showing in significant exhibitions. Mountains and Sea (14.26) was her innovative abstract painting created on a large canvas she laid on the floor, layered with applications of thinned paint she called a soak-stain painting. Working from all sides of the canvas, Frankenthaler was able to float different colors as she walked around, giving the painting a translucent appearance. In her workshop, she painted on a wide range of materials, sculpted, and worked extensively with woodcuts.

    Mountains and Sea
    14.26 Mountains and Sea

    Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was an American artist, musician, and producer. The multi-talented Basquiat first became known as part of a graffiti group who wrote messages on the walls in the lower eastside of Manhattan in the late 1970s. He started painting in a neo-expressionist, primitive way in the 1980s, focusing on the dichotomies of segregation versus integration, or poverty versus wealth. Basquiat was self-taught and quit high school in his senior year, selling his art on postcards and tee-shirts. After three years, when he was 20 years old, his work was featured in a group show, and soon after, his work for an original sold for $50,000.

    Basquiat drew and painted works that were abstract yet figurative, often with words, numbers, inset pictures, or diagrams to help illustrate his social ideas. The two untitled paintings (14.27, 14.28) used acrylics and mixed media to create the symbolism found in his work. Social commentary and the power struggles of racism directed his paintings, capturing the issues of colonialism and class struggle. Basquiat became a famous artist in the 1980s, but heroin addiction took his life in 1988, leaving a legacy of work and images.

    clipboard_edb321f2de87d7c35ed8e590cf26fbb89.png14.27 Untitled
    14.28 Untitled
    clipboard_e370ba26042a151efbe4a55075dc09af7.png14.29 Wheel

    Edgar Heap of Birds (born November 22, 1954) is an artist who uses many disciplines, including large scale drawings, prints, outdoor sculptures, and public art messages. He first became known for his political signage works found in specific sites. For example, he created forty signs along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis that honored the forty Dakota native people killed during the United States vs. Dakota Conflict in 1862.

    Wheel (14.29) is a porcelain enamel on steel sculpture based on the traditional Medicine Wheel of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming, a sacred site and place reverence. The sculpture is 15.24 meters in bright red, the tree branches jutting upward, representing a gathering place and a formation of a dance. Heap of Birds taught at Yale, Rhode Island School of Design, and the University of Cape Town; his seminars focused on the issues of contemporary artists at all levels. Today he still works with indigenous people around the world to advocate for social justice and their participation in creative endeavors.

    This page titled 14.4: Abstract Expressionism is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .