Abstract expressionism doesn't refer so much to a particular style (within abstract art) as it does to a group of abstract painters in post-WWII America. The other thing they had in common was their aim to use abstract art as a means to express their inner self, which they shared with most abstract painters of their day, including the European abstract art movement.
This description of abstract expressionism may cause some confusion, because today people take it for granted that abstract art painters use abstract art to express their feelings. However, to promote this aim to abstract art's primary goal, that was new at the time. Before, artists, abstract or not, had rather more universal aims which were directed at the outer world, that is, the public and society in general, such as doctrines and philosophies designed to fill the spiritual void left behind by secularization (i.e. people turning away from religion). Perhaps the post-WWII era is best typified by the individualism that, in abstract art, translated itself into abstract artists regarding their inner self as the center of their art. This holds true for art informel as well, which was the European counterpart of abstract expressionism.
In fact, the painters of art informel pioneered this attitude and style of making paintings, but the American abstract expressionists soon took the initiative. As set forward on paintings of art informel, post-WWII abstract painting was a reaction to previous abstract styles that were thought to be unfit for the post-WWII situation. Pre-war abstract art was dominated by geometric abstraction, which resulted in a way of making paintings that was regarded as too remote from social reality: the painters of art informel sought and found a way of painting that represented a break with the strict rules and cool logic of geometric abstraction, resulting in "a style of wild gestures" - here one has to picture a painter who applies his paint not in a careful and contemplated fashion, but fast, incorporating an element of chance and relying on his improvising abilities.
While the painters of art informel still applied their paint with a brush, the American painter Jackson Pollock would lay his oversized canvas flat on the floor and drip his paint from the brush, or straight from the container, onto the canvas, which earned him the nickname "Jack the Dripper". As so often (but not always) in abstract art, Pollock's innovations came forth out of his need to circumvent his technical limitations and ultimately evolved into a well-defined style. Pollock was the kind of painter that was able to directly influence his contemporaries and open up new roads in art. As one of the great personalities in American abstract art, he was instrumental to the shifting of the art world's center of gravity from Paris to New York.
While art informel had a pessimistic quality, with abstract paintings consisting of sombre colors (boring, according the Germany-based "Zero" group, that emerged during the 1960s), the American abstract expressionists made paintings of high vitality, energy and bright colors, which proved to be more popular with the public - art buyers in particular. While post-WWII Europe was impoverished (the human consequences which the painters of art informel sought to express), the American business world was keen on spending a part of their wealth on art in an effort to link their company name to (American) fine art.
The success of abstract expressionism was by no means instant. At first the American public was disinterested with art in general (art didn't build America and wasn't associated with the hardship of the original pioneer) and the wild, hard to understand abstract art that the abstract expressionists presented was received with hostility rather that appreciation. At first the abstract expressionist saw himself as the undervalued genius (which in the American culture translates into heroism), persevering his lonely struggle for the development of art, for the greater good of all humanity. Later on, fortunately, many abstract expressionists became successful painters and wealthy men.
While during the pre-WWII period the American artist was thought of as working "under European supervision", after the war American abstract art became fully independent, and, dominant for several decades. However, many American abstract expressionists were European immigrants, like Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Hans Hofmann, who had all received an education in art, during their youth in Europe. While De Kooning eventually became the most successful abstract expressionist, it was Hofmann in particular, who contributed to the development of American abstract art by founding his "School of fine arts" in New York, now regarded as "the cradle of American abstract art", but also because of his paintings in which he showed a remarkable sensitivity for color and it's relationship with composition.
|Jackson Pollock's "Blue Poles", 1953, 210 by 488 cm, is a good example of a painting that looks a mess on first sight, but is in fact very deliberately "painted" (or dripped). Compositionally the painting consists of a repetition of a pattern with variations. |
|Willem de Kooning's "Woman I", 1950-1952, 192 by 147 cm, is an abstract painting with an a element of figuration. Apparently De Kooning did not care about a precise drawing to set up the painting, but continued to draw with paint as the painting progressed. The subtle coloring contrasts with the aggressive nature of the painting.|
In much of the literature abstract expressionism is described as an inspirational art form, in the sense of having been a rebellion against the formalist nature of geometric abstraction (e.g. Mondrian, Malevich). It is this author's view that abstract expressionism also has a purely formal side, which is represented by the need that artists felt to create a language that doesn't consist of an underlying pictorial system. The essence of a Mondrian painting is how one element (a rectangle or line) interacts with another, with all the elements together forming a pictorial balance. For many (or some) post-geometric abstractionist artists there comes a time when such interaction becomes a cliché and he/she will want to create an art which consists of purely disjoint elements without the observer to be able to discern a system that relates one element to another.
This development is similar to the transition from tonal to atonal music. In tonal music one tone (the tonic) is the center of a musical composition, while in atonal music there is no such center. Likewise, in the formalism of abstract expressionism the lack of interaction between elements produces an artwork in which each element is on par with the next, without preferred elements that attract more attention than the others.
This process was intuitive rather than conscious for the abstract expressionists. In the work of perhaps the most formal of the early abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock, one can discern the absence of a center, but his brush strokes (or drippings) don't seem to be applied as if they were intended to be disjoint or counteract their peers, or that the artist intended to remove an underlying pictorial system.
Perhaps this lack of insight explains why abstract expressionism may be seen as an art form without masterpieces, nevertheless abstract expressionism has been of tremendous importance to the pictorial vocabulary of the artists that have succeeded it.