Express yourself: Abstract Expressionism
Jackson Pollock, Ocean Greyness, 1953, oil on canvas, 146 x 229cm
In our recent sessions we have looked at Conceptual art, Minimalism and Pop Art. These
movements were to a certain extent all responses to Abstract Expressionism, which came
immediately prior to these, in the 1940s-50s in the US. We’ll look again today at Abstract
Expressionism and the ‘colour field’ work of Mark Rothko.
What do we mean by Expressionism?
Expressionism (capital ‘E’) was an art movement at beginning 20th century,
mainly in Germany and Austria. We have seen a couple of examples of
Expressionist art: Kathe Kollwitz, and Egon Schiele. Broadly, they had in
common a desire to express strong emotions and psychological states
through strong colours, tonal contrasts, and often simplified or coarse
brushwork or line. People then refer to work as being ‘expressionistic’ (small
‘e’) meaning that it has some of these qualities.
Kathe Kollwitz, Mother and dead child, 1903, etching.
Egon Schiele, Self
portrait, 1911,
pencil, gouahe,
watercolour on
Abstract Expressionist was a term used (by art critics) to describe a group of artists who had differing
styles and ideas but were grouped together anyway. Also known as the New York School, as they
were all based there.
When: 1940s and 50s in New York, after many Surrealist artists fled to US to escape Nazism.
In the mid 1930s, a massive Federal Art Project employed thousands of artists on a modest wage to
create employment and get American cultural practice rolling after the Depression. This included
artists who became part of the New York School, including Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Mark
Rothko and others.
What: Painters and sculptors influenced by Surrealism, in particular automatism – the spontaneous,
free association of ideas, or stream of consciousness, without the censorship of reason. A connection
with your unconscious in some way – an inner reality. Also like some Surrealists, some of these artists
were interested in myths and legends and ancient symbols.
Jackson Pollock US 1912-1956, Pasiphae,
1943, 142.6 x 243.8cm
Pollock was the best known of the Abstract
Expressionist group, and famous for his
break with traditional practises with his
drip paintings. This is an earlier piece,
named after the mythic figure Pasiphae,
who gave birth to the Minotaur (half man,
half bull.)
Abstract Expressionism was the result of many influences coming
Surrealist influence – automatism; link with unconscious;
Expressionist influence – intensely personal expression; use of colour.
Cubist influence – distortion of figure; destruction of perspective.
Other influences include psychology, Freud and Jung, and traditional
indigenous practices. Pollock was influenced by traditional Sand
painting, which he saw in the 1940s. These are ephemeral artworks
involving sand poured out of the hand, used for religious and ritual
Navajo sand painting
Jackson Pollock’s work was important for many reasons, including use of new
materials within his artworks – liquid paints; house paints, broken glass;
sand. Also the techniques he used to apply the paint: hardened brushes;
sticks; turkey-baster syringes; and famously, DRIPPING the paint from the can
onto the canvas.
To manage this , he took his paintings down from the easel and laid the
canvas on the floor. This meant he could approach the canvas from any
direction and use his body in new ways. He felt he ‘entered into’ the painting.
This was a huge break with Western tradition.
Blue Poles, No 11 212 x
488cm, paint and glass on
canvas, 1952
The media loved to promote
the idea of Pollock as a heroic
and tortured individual,
throwing all his passions into
his artwork in this radical new
technique – (called ‘Action
painting’ by the critic Harold
Rosenberg.) His work was used
in fashion shoots by Cecil
Beaton in Vogue magazine.
What might this say about the
relationship between
Cecil Beaton, silk taffeta dress in front of Pollock painting, Vogue Magazine, 1951
Did all Abstract Expressionist work look alike? Well….no. Actually. Not at all. Some was
expressive and the hand of the artist was obvious, like Pollock’s. However some artists
produced work that was more like a ‘field of colour’, such as Mark Rothko (Latvian, worked in
US, 1903-1970)
Rothko’s later works (such as this one pictured)
Are his most famous. They create an
awe – inspiring atmosphere and power. They are
similar to medieval religious paintings in a way…
WHOA, what??? Really? Says who, and why?
Mark Rothko, Untitled, oil on
canvas, 207 X 167cm,
Rothko was influenced by Surrealist imagery, myths and symbols of ancient
peoples in his early work. He felt he could not use the human figure after the
War however– it failed to describe the ‘tragedy of the human condition’
adequately. His work became progressively more abstract. He was trying to
convey deep and profound meanings that went beyond words. Unlike the
expressive hand of Pollock’s work, these abstract works had thin washes of
paint, like veils. They sometimes ‘throb’ or vibrate when you look at them. The
colour, lack of perspective, horizontals and verticals, frontal presentation, and
scale was what we respond to.
Basic principals of human existence and especially
death, were what Rothko was concerned with. He
felt people got distracted by what critics said about
his colour though, and may fail to really appreciate
the deeper meaning of his works.
Rothko, 1957 #120, 1957, oil on canvas, 233 x
He didn’t want titles and he worried that the things that were written about his
work may lead people away from an understanding, instead of helping.
Untitled, 1953, oil on canvas, 195 x 172cm
Quote: "small pictures since the
Renaissance are like novels; large pictures
are like dramas in which one participates
in a direct way.” Like minimalist work, the
artist was interested in an interaction
between audience and artwork.
Interior, Rothko Chapel, Texas.
The chapel paintings were a commission of 14 very large works, all in sombre tones and
lit by natural light. Rothko committed suicide before he saw the completion of the
chapel. It is used as an inter-faith space.
How does this work with our frames?
Subjective Yes yes and more yes. This is all about the personal; the individual,
and an ‘internal reality’, (as the Surrealists and German Expressionists had been,
earlier in the century.) The works tend not to tell a story as such, but reflect a
mood, atmosphere, feeling.
Cultural: Arose in post WW2 USA, a nation very proud of it’s democracy and the
idea of individual freedom. The New York School artists worked in well politically
with these ideas, and their work was sent on International tours that served to
promote the American way. Pollock in particular was sensationalised in the
popular press (known as ‘Jack the Dripper.’) Rothko’s work was concerned with
the tragedy and sacredness of being human, in a post WW2, modernist world.
He felt figuration was impossible and an abstract expression somehow could get
to the heart of things.
Postmodern: Like other avant-garde movements we’ve seen,
Abstract Expressionists created new forms of expression in their
search for authenticity. Pollock’s artmaking techniques were a
big break with Western tradition, though as we’ve seen, are
linked to his experience seeing indigenous sand painters.
Structural: Pollock used house paints rather than traditional oils, as well as new
tools: turkey basters; sticks. His paintings had a new effect, involving the body
of the viewer in a more ‘immersive’ experience than with traditional painting.
There was no particular focus on the canvas, and the scale was huge. Scale, too
was a feature of Rothko’s work, and a stillness and simplicity which in some
way harked back to art from before the Renaissance. Both artists were involved
with describing something that words or stories were inadequate to do. “…This
American movement influenced a generation of European and Australian
painters who identified the act of creation as being of the greatest
importance….” (NGA website.)
Fineberg, Jonathan, Art since 1940: strategies of being. Upper Saddle River, NJ:
Prentice Hall, 1995
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC:
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC:
National Gallery of Australia: