Abstract Expressionism. Abstract what? Exactly my reaction on hearing it for the first time.
The Royal Art Academy has recently been awash with its critically acclaimed survey of Abstract Expressionism. Making key appearances at this event are the explosive Jack Pollock; De Kooning’s frightening figures of women, Rothko’s fascinating yet terrifying darkness and Barnett Newman’s zig zagging zips and planes, to mention a few.
But before I get carried away prattling on about artists in the exhibitions, how much do we really know about Abstract Expressionism?
What is Abstract Expressionism?
Abstract Expressionism is an art movement in American painting which originated during the post-World War II era in the late 1940s. It became the first movement to specifically garner international recognition and put New York City at the heart of the Western art world, a position formerly occupied by Paris.
It has been described as “serious grown-up stuff”. Abstract Expressionism is about existential anxiety and overwhelming emotions; death and farcicality of life. It is a quest for the sublime, and focuses on the apotheosis of art and the artist. Perhaps this is not surprising considering the period of its materialisation. The world was still recovering from the bitterness of war.
Notwithstanding, it holds a major significance in modern art and here are five interesting facts you should know about it:
1. Product of an extraordinary time
As mentioned before, Abstract Expressionism was born from the collective experience of artists living in 1940s New York. Put together; two World Wars, the Great Depression, the devastating effect of the atomic bomb and a resulting Cold War, prompted a morbid obsession for darkness that could only be expressed through art. Contemplation about the future and its seeming bleakness fed into their creative expression.
2. It took scale to new altitudes
Scale is a common feature of Abstract Expressionism. Some artists had been inspired by the experience of paint murals for the New Deal’s Federal Art Project, and many of them went on to favour massive canvasses that seem to consume the viewer. For example, David Smith’s sculptures were designed to be viewed in the openness of the outdoors.
3. It threw the viewer into its art (it still does)
Abstract art reaches out and lures the viewer into a meeting with the artist. As the artist expresses emotions and communicates their presence in the work, the viewer’s interpretation completes the whole picture. In Pollock’s own words from 1950, abstract painting “confronts you”. As in the depiction of Rothko Chapel in Houston, the magnitude of the encounter is amplified by the presentation of the work.
4. It didn’t conform to tradition
Jackson Pollock, one of the key figures of the movement at the time had a drip technique that involved pouring industrial paint directly onto raw canvas, stretched out on the floor. By working this way, he rejected the common notion that a painting should have a central focal point. Instead, he chose to embrace the ‘all-over composition’. Other artists such as Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt practiced the same technique too.
5. Its main artists were close but independent
Abstract Expressionists were friends, associates and lovers, however, each of them had their own distinctive style. Unlike art forms such as Cubism and Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism did not go by a specific formula, this diversity celebrated the individualism and freedom of each artist to express themselves.
Hopefully, this will convince you to check out some of the extraordinary paintings displayed at the Royal Art Academy.