Beginning in the 1940s, a group of painters who we now collectively refer to as The New York School (or Abstract Expressionism artists) broke away from conventional technique and subject matter to better express subjective emotional reality in their art practice. As the name suggest, these paintings were abstract and simultaneously expressed the maker’s inner state of mind and the universal truths of the human condition. Historically speaking, these artists were working in the wake of the Great Depression, experiencing the crisis and aftermath of World War II, and painting in the era of bebop jazz and the Beat poets.
Artists in New York during the mid-20th century were also exposed to the work of many Europeans who sought refuge in the United States during World War II, such as Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst. The techniques used by these Surrealist artists, like automatic drawing and free improvisation, were an important component of the techniques adopted by Abstract Expressionists. The most widely known artists from this period, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, embody the two elements that Abstract Expressionist painters chose to explore: gesture and fields of color.
Jackson Pollock used a radical technique consisting in dripping and splashing paint onto a canvas with sticks and the ends of brushes. His paintings are created through dynamic gestures, and the resulting images are highly expressive and dramatic. These pieces are considered the first entirely non-objective works in the history of art. The enormous scale of the images, the lack of subject matter, and the technique he used was shocking and innovative for its time.
This type of action painting is based predominantly on spontaneity, which gives the work a level of immediacy. Many other artists besides Pollock used action and gesture to convey vigorous energy. Instead of letting paint drip onto the canvas, artist Lee Krasner (who also happened to be Pollock’s wife) used traditional brushes but applied paint in a frenzied tangle of lines that seem to explode on the two-dimensional surface. While other gestural painters filled their canvases, Joan Mitchell often chose to leave passages of her works blank, letting her flurries of color have room to breath. Willem de Kooning, who along with Pollock came to embody the popular image of the macho -the hard-drinking archetype of Abstract Expressionism- never truly abandoned real subject matter; his famous Woman series is highly abstracted and violently gestural, but still rooted in reality.
In the other side of the spectrum, Mark Rothko’s work explores the emotionalism that can be conveyed through large-scale blocks of color. He was deeply interested in the type of meditative or contemplative response that the juxtaposition of color can elicit from the viewer. Rothko’s paintings usually consist in a couple of flat, large swaths of luminous color. Again, the vast scale of the works is crucial for their effectiveness.
The washes or layers of color are supposed to be seen at close proximity so that the viewer would be enveloped in the image. Being surrounded by those fields of color can be a sublime, quasi-religious experience that can only be achieved by pure abstraction.
As Mark Rothko once said, “We assert man’s absolute emotions. We don’t need props or legends. We create images whose realities are self evident. Free ourselves from memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or life, we make it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”
Other color field artists achieved a similar effect using different methods. Instead of working with conventional brushes, Helen Frankenthaler chose to create fields of color by pouring thinned paint directly onto the canvas, letting it pool in organic shapes.
Barnett Newman interrupted his large swaths of color with ‘zips’, or vertical bands that bisect his canvases, and Clyfford Still used thick impasto paint to juxtapose bright, jagged flashes of color. All of them created images that allow the eye to wander, offering the viewer the opportunity to stop and experience the myriad of feelings that these colors can arouse.
This group of artists shaped a watershed moment in American art. The breakthroughs made by Abstract Expressionist painters effectively shifted the focus of the art world from war-torn Europe to New York City.