Art Glossary

What is Abstract Expressionism? (The Characteristics of It)

September 7, 2023 by

Are you curious about the art movement that revolutionized American painting in the mid-twentieth century? Look no further than Abstract Expressionism.

This genre of art is known for its unique characteristics that set it apart from other styles of painting.

In this article, we’ll explore the features that define Abstract Expressionism and examine how they contributed to its status as one of the most influential movements in the history of modern art.

From the bold brushstrokes to the emphasis on emotion and gesture, Abstract Expressionism is a style that can’t be missed. So let’s dive in and discover what makes this art form so captivating!

Here are the topics we’ll be covering:

Table of Contents

What is Abstract Expressionism?

Abstract expressionism is a modern abstract art form that is characterized by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity.

It originated in New York City in the late 1940s and early 50s and its aim was to put the American artists at the center of the international art scene, which was dominated by European artists.

Abstract expressionism in art was a rebellion and a renunciation of traditional art forms, conceptions, and knowledge.

Born in America, it was truly an American art form marked by unrestrained expressiveness, unbridled passion and energy, and spontaneous creativity.

The pioneers of abstract expressionism — Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko et cetera — were the contemporaries and rivals to European artists like Picasso and Dali.

The abstract expressionist painters sought to express their feelings or emotions through abstract forms of paintings that were created by following through with the artist’s moods and impulses.

abstract expressionism example

Abstract expressionism is heavily influenced by the manipulation of the objective reality of the Surrealists and the improvisational spontaneity of the Jazz musicians of the time.

Like the Surrealists, the abstract expressionist artist believes in subjective reality.

There is no inherently deep single truth to a painting; the observer or the person looking at the painting gives it its own meaning.

And like the Jazz musicians of the time and their erratic improvisations on stage, the abstract expressionists followed no set standard in their painting.

In fact, their method was to follow the impulses and the unbridled flow of thoughts in their paintings.

Just look at a Jackson Pollock, and you will know what I mean by spontaneity.

To further explore the definition of abstract expressionism, we recommend checking out this in-depth video by The Museum of Contemporary Art:

How Would You Describe Abstract Expressionism?

Instead of relying on set guidelines to express one’s self through art, the abstract expressionist artists created art that was extremely spontaneous and that looked — to a casual observer, at least — nothing more than chaotic brushstrokes or paint splotches.

According to Jackson Pollock, “An abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you.

What Pollock means by abstract paintings being abstract is that it has no set meaning in stone. It is open to interpretation.

That’s what the abstract expressionist movement is all about: it is the breaking of chains of objective reality so that you can discover the true reality for yourself.

When Was Abstract Expressionism (Time Period)?

The era of abstract expressionism started right after the end of the Second World War. It was a time of conservatism in the United States.

McCarthyism was on its rise and eventually swept across US politics and the fear of communism was leading to political repression.

In this repressive time where people were conservative and careful about what they did and said, abstract expressionism was born.

It expressed the rebellious spirit of the age embodied by the American artists of the time.

abstract expressionism art example

New York City was where the abstract expressionists set up shop and worked only a few blocks away from each other in their abstract art studios.

It was also the time when Jazz music — with great artists like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong — was still mesmerizing crowds with its impassioned notes.

It was also the Cold War era, and the ideological clash with the communist pervaded every facet of life and field of study.

According to this article in the Independent, the US government funded the abstract expressionist movement because it was in stark contrast to the communist repression of the Soviets.

It expressed unbridled passions, impulses, and emotions, things that were looked down upon in the Soviet world.

Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism

Abstract expressionism is an art form that values raw truth and reality.

The meaning of abstract expressionist art is subjective and open to varying interpretations.

It depends on the observer what meaning he/she brings to the art, and it is not the responsibility of the artist to give meaning to his/her work.

Stylistically, abstract expressionism is a renunciation of the old traditional ways of conceiving art.

The whole process of planning, sketching, and using tools or guides to render aesthetically pleasing art forms gives way to spontaneous outbursts of pure and untapped emotions in abstract expressionism.

There are two types of abstract expressionism in art:

1. Action Painting

Action painting gives an impression of raw and unbridled impulse and expression.

There are chaotic markings on the canvas, seemingly with no intentional thought, but that is an illusion.

Action Painting

In fact, the strokes are controlled and intentional, the effect of chaos is manufactured with skill by the artist.

2. Color Field Painting

The pioneer of this art form was Mark Rothko. The paintings were not chaotic but they were made with a single color or at max only two.

color field painting example

When you look at a color field painting, you will get a deeply calming effect and at the same time, it draws you into itself because these paintings confront deeper spiritual realities.

What is the Purpose of Abstract Expressionism?

The purpose of abstract expressionism is to express unconscious emotions and impulses onto the canvas.

Inspired by the Surrealists, the abstract expressionism movement also laid heavy emphasis on expressing unfiltered thoughts that expressed true reality and freedom.

According to Mark Rothko, abstract expressionism is an adventure into the unknown, and it is the artist’s job to render those unknown images so that they can be communicated to the onlooker.

Famous Abstract Expressionism Artists

There are many abstract expressionist artists of renown from the New York School (a group of abstract expressionists residing in New York City started calling themselves the New York School).

A few of the notable ones are mentioned below with a little detail:

Jackson Pollock

Arguably, one of the most famous abstract expressionists was Paul Jackson Pollock.

He is famous for his dripping technique where he would splash and drip paint onto a canvas placed on the floor.

This horizontal painting style made him view his work from all angles enabling him to create mesmerizing art that caught your eye no matter where you looked at it.

To learn more about Jackson Pollock, we recommend checking out this in-depth video by The Art Assignment:

Willem de Kooning

This Dutch-American abstract expressionist turned to abstractions in the 1940s when unable to afford oil paints and painting tools, he turned to painting black and white abstractions.

He is famous for his ‘woman series’ that started in the 1950s.

To learn more about Willem de Kooning, we recommend checking out this video by Phaidon:

Mark Rothko

The color field painter, Mark Rothko, was inspired by the philosophical Jungian theories of the unconscious and mythology.

According to him, he sought to liberate the human unconscious through his art.

His style consisted of rectangles with undefined, sometimes blurry edges, against a single color background.

He also considered his subjects to be primitive and mythological, and it has an almost meditative effect.

To learn more about Mark Rothko, we recommend checking out this video by The Art Assignment:

Final Remarks

Abstract expressionism is a non-representational form of art that is characterized by its aggressive brush strokes, vibrant colors, and almost spontaneous rendition of the unconscious.

It was the product of the time and heavily influenced by Surrealists, Jazz music, Freudian and Jungian psychology, and Cold War politics.

It is also a true American art form born in New York City.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main characteristic of Abstract Expressionism?

The main characteristic of Abstract Expressionism is the emphasis on spontaneous, unstructured creation through the use of bold brushstrokes, drips, and splatters. This style also prioritizes the expression of emotion and the artist’s inner world, often resulting in large, abstract works that evoke a sense of energy and movement.

How do you identify Abstract Expressionism?

Abstract Expressionism can be identified through its non-representational, often large-scale canvases featuring bold brushstrokes, drips, and splatters. This style prioritizes the expression of emotion and energy through abstract forms, often eschewing traditional techniques and subjects.

What is unique about Abstract Expressionism?

What makes Abstract Expressionism unique is its emphasis on spontaneous, unstructured creation, often resulting in large-scale works that prioritize the artist’s emotion and inner world over traditional techniques or subjects. This style paved the way for a new era in modern art and challenged conventional notions of what art could be.