Expressionism was an American post–World War II art movement. It was the
first specifically American movement to achieve worldwide influence and
put New York City at the center of the art world, a role formerly filled
by Paris. A small group of loosely affiliated artists created a
stylistically diverse body of work that introduced radical new
directions in art and shifted the art world's focus. Never a formal
association, the artists known as "Abstract Expressionists" or "The New
York School" did, however, share some common assumptions. Artists such
Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Lee
Krasner, Robert Motherwell, and
Elaine Fried de Kooning valued
spontaneity and improvisation, and they accorded the highest importance
Their work resists stylistic categorization, but it can be clustered around two basic inclinations: an emphasis on dynamic, energetic gesture, in contrast to a reflective, cerebral focus on more open fields of color. In either case, the imagery was primarily abstract. Even when depicting images based on visual realities, the Abstract Expressionists favored a highly abstracted mode.
Abstract Expressionist left behind the moderate, easel bound canvases for a larger, even over-sized surface that was often placed upon the floor. Adhering to their own ideas and rules, abstract artist steered away from the traditional, aesthetic "form" painting and instead utilized the entire canvas with their methods of splattering, dripping and broad brush strokes. Abstract Expressionist practiced a variety of techniques to convey their messages. Jackson Pollock, whose painting 'Shimmering Substance' is shown below, has often been referred to as turbulent yet graceful artist. Pollock create his paintings by placing a large canvas onto his studio floor and then he would pour, toss or splatter his various hues over the entire canvas.
Abstract Expressionism developed in the context of diverse, overlapping sources and inspirations. Many of the young artists had made their start in the 1930s. The Great Depression yielded two popular art movements, Regionalism and Social Realism, neither of which satisfied this group of artists' desire to find a content rich with meaning and redolent of social responsibility, yet free of provincialism and explicit politics.
The Great Depression also spurred the development of government relief programs, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a jobs program for unemployed Americans in which many of the group participated, and which allowed so many artists to establish a career path.
New York was becoming "Abstract City" as more and more artists began to follow the new school of art. Europe, during this period, was also experiencing an increase in abstract expressionist. The Europeans referred to their abstract movement as either "tachism", which is French for "spot", which stresses the use of colored patches or "Art Informel", which rejected the use of formal structures and had very close ties to the New York action painting.
Artists like Mark Rothko (his painting "Orange and Yellow " shown top of page) created art based on simplified, large-format, color-dominated fields. The impulse was reflective and cerebral, with pictorial means simplified in order to create a kind of elemental impact. Rothko spoke of a goal to achieve the "sublime" rather than the "beautiful." For Rothko, his glowing, soft-edged rectangles of luminescent color should provoke in viewers a quasi-religious experience, even eliciting tears. As with Pollock and the others, scale contributed to the meaning. Artworks were vast in scale. And they were meant to be seen in relatively close environments, so that the viewer was virtually enveloped by the experience of confronting the work. Rothko said, "I paint big to be intimate."