Abstract expressionism

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The abstract expressionism is a North American art movement of modern painting, which primarily by the New York School became known in the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Their main currents manifested themselves in action painting and color field painting .


Painting techniques of action painting: paint sprayed on the left, dripped on the right

All forms of abstract expressionism had in common that feeling, emotion and spontaneity were more important than perfection, reason and regulation. The representation was abstract, partly also abstract-figurative. He adopted the surrealist technique of automatism and the cubist idea of ​​two-dimensional space.

The painting techniques were varied and the paint was applied to the painting surface with brushes, spatulas, with the palm of the hand, with the help of perforated containers ("dripping") or buckets.

The founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred Barr , characterized the second stream of abstract painting - after Fauvism and Kandinsky - “more intuitive and emotional than intellectual, its forms are more organic and biomorphic than geometric, more curvy than rectangular, rather decorative rather than structural, and in its enthusiasm for the mystical, spontaneous and irrational it is more romantic than classic ”.


The term abstract expressionism for this art movement goes back to the longtime art critic of the New Yorker , Robert Coates . He used it when discussing the first comprehensive exhibition by Hans Hofmann in 1946 at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery.

"Because he [meaning Hans Hofmann] is certainly one of the most uncompromising representatives of what some call the 'blob and mess school of painting' and what, in a friendlier way, I have dubbed Abstract Expressionism."

- Barbara Hess; Uta Grosenick (Ed.) : 2005, Abstract Expressionism, Taschen, Köln, S, 6.

The Jewish-German emigrant Hans Sahl was there when the term “Abstract Expressionism” was invented: “I got to know its beginnings in the Cedar Bar and the White Horse Inn when my friend, the sculptor Peter Grippe , met me made known to some young people who claimed that one had to invent something new, something that was neither abstract nor expressionistic and yet both at the same time. 'Why not Abstract Expressionism?' said a burly, somewhat menacing-looking man named Jackson Pollock . Beer bottles were toasted to each other. That was shortly after World War II. Then the art dealers took up the idea and abstract expressionism conquered the world ”.

Variants and currents

Karl Otto Götz : KO 54
Josef Trattner , abstract expressionist wine picture, 2010

Action painting developed in the United States, independently of European developments, with Jackson Pollock as his main representative, who dripped, ran or hurled paint onto the canvas spread out on the floor (a technique that Max Ernst also used). Also, Sam Francis , Helen Frankenthaler and early Robert Rauschenberg practiced rapid spontaneous painting. Chief representative of the meditative color field painting ( Color Field Painting ) are Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko . Rothko painted large, often monochrome modulated color surfaces with a meditative character, which cannot be grasped with the term expressionistic , and who has always denied that his pictures are abstract .

Other important abstract expressionist artists were Mark Tobey , Adolph Gottlieb , Arshile Gorky , Clyfford Still , Willem de Kooning , Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell . Ad Reinhardt is also assigned to this direction, although he distanced himself from it. In addition to the East Coast variant of the New York School , two Pacific variants emerged, the California School with Richard Diebenkorn and the Northwest School of Abstract Expressionism with Mark Tobey and Morris Graves as the most important representatives.

Related to American abstract expressionism is the European abstract art of the post-war period, which became known as informal art or tachism , where la tache = the stain served as the starting point for the painting process. It came from France and was very well received in Germany (primarily Düsseldorf ). Important artists are Wols , Jean Fautrier , Hans Hartung , Georges Mathieu from France and Peter Brüning , Karl Otto Götz , Emil Schumacher from Germany. In Austria the trend of abstract expressionism manifested itself up to the 21st century in the work of Hermann Nitsch and Josef Trattner .

Development in the USA

Second World War , the persecution of the Jews and the condemnation of modern art by the National Socialists as degenerate art led to a wave of immigration of European artists to the USA, especially to New York. Hans Hofmann opened the Hofmann School of Fine Arts in New York in 1933 , and Josef Albers taught at Black Mountain College from 1933 . They exerted a strong influence on contemporary American artists.

It is less a style than a concept of performing art in a spontaneous manner and without the restriction of conventional forms. Jackson Pollock , Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko were among the leading forces in the movement . The surrealist attitude towards free creation had a significant influence on the beginnings of abstract expressionism, above all through the renegade surrealist Wolfgang Paalen , who propagated a concept of space newly determined by quantum physics, totemism and cubism in his magazine DYN from Mexico. Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century museum and gallery in New York, which exhibited modern art from 1942 to 1947, was a meeting place for European surrealist and young American artists and provided the most important exhibition space in the development of abstract expressionism. At that time, Barnett Newman made a list of the desired representatives for the New Art Movement to be founded . In addition to Gottlieb, Rothko, Pollock, Hofmann, Baziotes and Gorky, he also named Wolfgang Paalen. On the other hand, he added a question mark to Motherwell.

Works by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky were first described as abstract expressionist in the USA , namely by Alfred H. Barr , the first director of the New York Museum of Modern Art . European avant-garde painters who emigrated to New York during the Second World War, including Max Ernst , Marcel Duchamp , Marc Chagall , Yves Tanguy , Piet Mondrian and, in 1947, Joan Miró , who stayed for several months , revived American artists' interest in abstract painting and prepared the ground for the triumph of abstract painting in the 1940s and 1950s.

This generation of artists is marked by a deep criticism of progress, especially the experiences of World War II and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima . Wolfgang Paalen's play The Beam of the Balance , a tragic comedy, is a reflection on the unbroken power of Stalinist state terrorism, the US atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945, and the danger of science out of whack in general. It first became known through a semi-public reading in the house of Robert Motherwell in East Hampton in the summer of 1946. A similar attitude is evident in representatives of abstract expressionism such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.

American artist

Semantic generalization

If the term expressionism is to have a semantic meaning for this form of abstract painting, then it must refer to a content-related claim that sets this painting apart from a purely pictorial construction or formal language. In fact, it also wants to express a mental and emotional impulse or state of mind of the artist and convey it to the viewer through the visual representation. Barbara Hess says: “All abstract expressionists wanted to convey emotions and ideas ...”. This artistic claim is a spiritual and religious message at the beginning of modern painting, and it occurs the more modern painting breaks away from the representational , not back, but on the contrary, with increasing abstraction, it can potentially unfold all the more strongly, as can be demonstrated with van Gogh and then in German Expressionism. This may be the conveyance of moods and feelings, such as basic human feelings, which Mark Rothko claims for himself and which, as he reports, not infrequently let the viewer of his pictures burst into tears, or allow the viewer to fathom his own state of mind, as Clifford did Still postulated, but who for his part believes to combine life and death "in a terrifying way" in his work. The viewer likes to feel the serenity, lightness, or even sublimity, threat that can be expressed in an abstract image. Even a work of Art Informel should still be able to radiate currents from the subconscious of the artist - or at least its exuberant energy, as in the case of Jackson Pollock. Of course, neither the art critic nor the artist himself should interpret too much of a work's profound content; perhaps it is only, but at least, the desire for a harmonious or dynamic composition that Alexej von Jawlensky described as the goal of every expressionist - no different in non-representational painting than in naturally non-representational music.

With this content of meaning, on the other hand, the concept of abstract expressionism can be generalized beyond its specifically North American form as a characterization of a certain art direction, a painting of expressive abstraction.

Abstract Expressionism in the Cold War

Abstract Expressionism was functionalized during the Cold War as a “figurehead” for the “free West”. Although he still had bitter opponents in the conservative camp in his own country who defamed abstract art as un-American, he was supposed to promote a “modern, liberal America” in international exhibitions.

On the occasion of the Paris “Congress for Cultural Freedom” in 1952, the Museum of Modern Art presented an exhibition with masterpieces of abstract expressionism. The curator of the exhibition pointed out that works are shown here, "which in totalitarian systems such as Germany during the Nazi era or today's Soviet Russia and its satellites could not have been created, let alone be exhibited." quite right, as can be shown below.

In 1953, twelve contemporary American painters and sculptors were presented in Europe, including the old masters John Marin , Stuart Davis , Edward Hopper and the socialist Ben Shahn . Abstract Expressionist works made up only a quarter of the Modern Art in the United States exhibition from the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art , which was on view in Europe in 1956. It was not until 1958/59 that the latest painting triumphed, The New American Painting showed eighty-one pictures by seventeen abstract-expressionist artists in eight Western European metropolises and then in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Put together by Dorothy Canning Miller , the influential curator of MoMA , the show changed the way Europe looked at American art. It was made possible by the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and the commitment of Blanchette Ferry Rockefeller. The Jackson Pollock retrospective compiled by Frank O'Hara for the 4th São Paulo Biennale (1957) was shown in Rome, Basel, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Berlin and London and at the documenta II in Kassel (1959) had. The works of all the artists in the New American Painting Show and other Americans were also exhibited in Kassel , a total of 144 works by 44 artists.

According to Karl Eimermacher, an American journalist reports from the World Youth Festival in Moscow in 1957 “Our (American artists, KE) thought they astonished the Russians with a wave of aggressive abstractions. It was based on the latest avant-garde trends and hoped to knock out socialist realism with all this eclecticism. Images were produced continuously, as if on an assembly line. When one canvas was ready , one reached for the next one. The Russians were slain. They did not expect such a pace. The students of the Academy had no choice but to defend their position with words. They argued violently. We were attacked for neglecting social problems, whereas we objected: First you have to learn to deal with the material! It went on like this until a strange-looking fellow appeared with two buckets of paint, which he had borrowed from the bored-looking painters along with a rag hanging on a stick. When he had spread out his canvas, he tipped both buckets over them - as far as the space would allow - jumped into the middle of the blue-green puddle and began desperately to work with the mop. It all took no more than ten seconds. We froze with excitement. A large portrait of a woman appeared at our feet, designed with virtuosity, refined and with a sensitive understanding. The boy winked at one of the Americans who had turned to stone, clapped his bum with his completely smeared palm and said: "Stop painting, I'll teach you to draw first."

In her book: Who Paid the Piper. The CIA and the Cultural Cold War noted the British historian and journalist Frances Stonor Saunders (* 1966) that the CIA subsidized Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists. This was done through the Congress for Cultural Freedom and in accordance with the funding policies of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation . While Stalin pushed socialist realism in his immediate sphere of influence and left intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso dominated the cultural scene in Paris , furthermore the Mexican muralism around Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros , the American regionalism in the era of the Great Depression and the New Deal wall painting had broadcast to the USA, was also inclined towards the Communist Party, after the war abstract expressionism also offered itself in destroyed Europe as a demonstration of political and artistic freedom (without a socially critical message). While the art movement was considered worthy of support in the sense of soft power , the individual artists were not necessarily in conformity with the system.

The shock caused by the New American Painting Show can also be seen in the Melbourne Antipodean Manifesto of a group of figurative painters and the Marxist art historian Bernard Smith against American-dominated abstraction.

Art market

Among the gallery owners of the abstract expressionists, apart from Peggy Guggenheim, the artist Betty Parsons, the art dealers Charles Egan , Samuel Kootz and Sidney Janis should be emphasized.

Abstract Expressionism paintings are enjoying increasing demand from private art collectors, while state museums can hardly finance such purchases. Since the turn of the millennium, pictures by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still or Barnett Newman have achieved top prices in the double-digit million range at auctions. Since these pictures represent a narrow, closed market segment and the number of artists and objects in question remains limited, buyers have confidence in steadily increasing prices and are therefore popular objects of speculation, as one can hope for high profits.


See also


  • David Anfam : Abstract Expressionism. World of Art. Thames and Hudson, London 1990, ISBN 978-0-50020243-2
  • Stephen Polcari: Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge 1991.
  • Exhibition catalog: Le grand geste! Informal and abstract expressionism 1946–1964. museum kunst palast, Düsseldorf, April 10 to August 1, 2010.
  • Marcia Bystryn: Art Galleries as Gatekeepers: The Case of the Abstract Expressionists. In: Social Research. Vol. 45/1978, pp. 390-408.
  • Barbara Hess / Uta Grosenick (eds.): Abstract Expressionism. Taschen, Cologne 2005, ISBN 3-8228-2967-6 .
  • Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and others: Abstract Expressionism in America. Exhibition catalog, ISBN 978-3-89422-097-6 .
  • Frances Stonor Saunders: Who pays the bill ... The CIA and Cold War culture. Siedler, Berlin 2001, ISBN 978-3-88680-695-9 .
  • David Anfam: Abstract Expressionism , Royal Academy of Arts, London 2016. ISBN 978-1-910350-31-7 .
  • Alexander Eiling, Felix Krämer (eds.): Making van Gogh. Hirmer Verlag, Munich 2019. ISBN 978-3-941399-96-9 .

Web links

Commons : Abstract Expressionism  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Edward Lucie-Smith: DuMont's Lexicon of Fine Arts. DuMont, Cologne 1990, p. 7 f.
  2. Quoted from Barbara Hess; Uta Grosenick (Ed.): Abstract Expressionism. Taschen, Cologne 2005, p. 7.
  3. Hans Sahl: The Exile in Exile. Luchterhand Collection, 1994, p. 161.
  4. In his theory of the observer-dependent space of possibility, which gave abstract painting new momentum and a unified, new worldview in the 1940s, Paalen processed findings from quantum physics as well as idiosyncratic interpretations of the totemic worldview and the spatial structures of Indian painting of the north-west coast
  5. The Oxford Dictionary of Art - Abstract Expressionism ( Memento June 22, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) enotes.com, accessed May 10, 2015.
  6. See Barnett Newman's Notes, in which he elaborates his organizing thoughts on America's new art movement , contains a handwritten list of the "men in the new movement." [Barnett Newman Foundation archive 18/103]
  7. Amy Winter, Interview of Luchita Mullican, Santa Monica, May 1, 1994 (Archives of American Art, New York)
  8. Barbara Hess: Abstract Expressionism . Verlag Taschen, Berlin 2017. ISBN 978-3-8365-0500-0 .
  9. Alexander Eiling: in Making van Gogh (Alexander Eiling and Felix Krämer, eds.). Hirmer Verlag, Munich 2019. ISBN 978-3-941399-96-9
  10. David Anfam: Abstract Expressionism , Royal Academy of Arts, London 2016, page 22.   ISBN 978-1-910350-31-7
  11. David Anfam: Abstract Expressionism , pp. 25, 44
  12. David Anfam: Abstract Expressionism , pp. 25, 37
  13. Alexander Eiling: in Making van Gogh , page 123
  14. Barbara Hess; Uta Grosenick (Ed.): Abstract Expressionism. Taschen, Cologne 2005, p. 17.
  15. ^ Rolf Wedewer: The painting of the Informel. Loss of the world and assertion of the self . Deutscher Kunstverlag, Munich, 2007, p. 30f. ISBN 3-422-06560-1
  16. ^ Karl Eimermacher: Life as Art - Art as Life (comments on the work of Anatolij Zverev). Catalog of the Bayer Gallery, Bietigheim-Bissingen, 1994, p. 29f.
  17. quote by I. Dudinskij: The discovery of an artist. Ogonek, No. 33, August 15-22, 1987, p. 24 (Russian)
  18. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20161004-was-modern-art-a-weapon-of-the-cia
  19. Barbara Hess; Uta Grosenick (Ed.): Abstract Expressionism. Taschen, Cologne 2005, p. 12.
  20. Color-drenched widescreen pictures call for a duel in FAZ on November 4, 2016, page 11