2. ABSTRACT: Non-representative, Non-Figurative (i.e. does not show us a “window
onto the world”)
EXPRESSIONISM: Artists express themselves and their emotions through colour,
§ Canvas becomes “arena in which to act” - Harold Rosenberg
§ It is not so much a style as a common approach.
§ Focuses on the process rather than the product.
§ Abstract expressionism was centered in New York City (AKA “The New York
3. Harold Rosenberg
§ He redefined abstract
expressionism as Action
§ The canvas went from:
“A space in which to reproduce,
re-design, analyze or ‘express’ an
object, actual or imagined’” to:
§ An “arena in which to act”
6. ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM’s Roots
What Were This Movement’s Influences?
§ European modern art: Movements like Fauvism and Expressionism’s vibrant use of color
inspired AbEx painters to use their own palettes more freely and emotionally.
§ Cubism, Surrealism, & Abstraction: The abandonment of pure figuration by artists like
Pablo Picasso and George Braque provided the permission these painters needed to
abandon concrete forms.
§ Earlier American art: American Regionalist painters like Thomas Hart Benton’s focus on
the liberated American attitude further fueled AbEx rebellion.
§ Asian art: The attention that traditional Asian calligraphy paid to line inspired the
AbEx painters to refocused their works’ energy on the lines they contained, not the
§ Mexican mural painting: Diego Rivera & David Siqueiros's huge, vibrant works
motivated the New York School artists to utilize large canvases that obscured the
viewer’s entire visual field.
7. EUROPEAN ABSTRACT ARTISTS
Picasso’s Still Life with Lemons (1907) Wassily Kandinsky’s Small Worlds (1922)
Both of these artists sought to flatten & compress 3D forms onto the 2D picture plane – stop
pretending a painting isn’t a painting!
8. Hans Hofmann
§ Hofmann was a German artist and
teacher who had mixed with Fauves
& Cubists in Europe.
§ In 1931 he came to the USA, teaching
first at UC Berkeley, then moving to
the Art Students League in NYC,
where he met & influenced Jackson
§ He brought the avant-garde to the US
& inspired the coming AbEx artists
through his advocacy of:
§ Emotional use of color
§ Energetic application of line
§ His use of paint anticipated both
Pollock’s “drip painting” and
Frankenthaler’s color field painting.
§ For surrealist artists, the process and method were very important, as they
were thought to be physical expressions of one’s subconscious.
§ They aimed to “express the true function of thought” by tapping into the
subconscious, and freeing themselves from “reason” (i.e. the super-ego).
§ As a result, surrealists had a keen interest in the imagery & content of
their dreams, which they believed to be the outlet of their subconscious &
the source of their creativity.
§ To access subconscious creativity while awake, artists began to use a
process called psychic automatism.
§ Psychic Automatism: Giving expression to the subconscious by giving up
control of the conscious mind; the artist attempts to be “passive” and
receptive and let the art or creativity flow through them automatically.
10. The Influence of Psychoanalysis
§ The surrealists’ interest in
dreams was influenced by
§ His Interpretation of Dreams
introduced them to the
§ Free association
§ Defense mechanisms, like
transference & projection
§ The libido (humanity’s main
§ Repression of painful memories
11. ARSHILE GORKY
§ Gorky was an important
psychological influence for AbEx
§ The emotionally fragile surrealist
arrived in the USA in 1920.
§ To deal with early childhood trauma,
Gorky used psychic automatism to
§ BIOMORPHIC FORMS: These soft,
organic shapes look like body parts, or
ripe, blossoming fruits
§ CURVILINEAR LINES: The twisting,
sinuous lines convey movement or
12. Arshile Gorky
The Betrothal II (1947)
“When something is
finished that means it’s dead,
doesn’t it? I believe in
everlastingness. I never
finish a painting, I just stop
working on it for a while.”
- Arshile Gorky
13. THE Betrothal II
“The canvas that confronts us is
almost nakedly autobiographical.
These apparently unspecific forms
nevertheless speak with great
precision about what the painter
feels and is. We sense the painter’s
own masochism from the way in
which the forms seem to attack each
other. Claws and tendrils spout from
what is apparently soft and
- Edward Lucie-Smith, Art Today
14. Producing A SURREALIST TEXT
From AnDre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto
1. Have someone bring you writing materials after getting settled in a
place as favourable as possible to your mind’s concentration on itself.
2. Put yourself in the most passive, or receptive state you can.
3. Forget about your genius, your talents and those of everyone else.
4. Tell yourself that literature is “the saddest path that leads to
5. Write quickly, without a preconceived subject, fast enough not to
remember and not to be tempted to read over what you have
15. Automatic Writing Exercise
§ This was originally a technique used by artists of all genres to put
themselves in touch with their own subconscious minds.
1. Get out a blank piece of paper and a pen or pencil.
2. Allow your thoughts and associations to flow out, without
3. Do not stop - just keep writing!
4. Music & video will be used to help create a mood, and to prompt
you - but this would not necessarily always be done!
5. Write continuously, without self-consciousness, until I tell you to
6. It may also be helpful for you to close your eyes.
17. POLLOCK’S OWN SURREALISM
“When I am in the painting, I’m
not aware of what I’m doing. It is
only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’
period that I see what I have been
about. I have no fears about
making changes, destroying the
image, etcetera, because the
painting has a life of its own. It is
only when I lose contact with the
painting that the result is a mess.”
- Jackson Pollock
18. INFLUENCE OF EARLIER AMERICAN
Canna Red and Orange (1922) § Female artist Georgia O’Keeffe was a
trailblazer for later American
§ Her large-scale abstract paintings
based on organic forms (i.e. flowers
& plants) challenged the realist style
of American art of the time.
§ She began working in New York,
but eventually moved to New
§ In 1956 she was honored with a
retrospective exhibition at NYC’s
MoMA – the 1st ever for a female
19. Asian Art’s influence
§ Chinese traditional calligraphy
became very influential to AbEx
§ In Chinese calligraphy, brush stroke
is very important because the flow
of ink conveys the emotion or
intention of the text.
§ Additionally Chinese calligraphy uses
characters (called ideograms) to
convey meaning rather than
§ This subtle and refined expression of
emotion through line was influential
for artists like Lee Krasner.
Assault on the Solar Plexus (1961)
20. “PRIMITIVE” ART
§ AbEx artists also studied Native
American art and Pre-Columbian
§ The Chilean surrealist Robert Matta
was important in bringing Native
American art to the art world’s
§ After studying it, AbEx artists
began to believe that “primitive” art
was more genuine expression of the
21. Navajo Sand Painting
§ Jackson Pollock in particular was
fascinated by Pre-Colombian
Mayan symbols & Native
American Navajo “sand painting”
because of its ritual & method.
§ To create their works, sand artists
make large, definite gestures and
work directly on the ground.
§ The abstract symbols took on the
meaning of the story being
illustrated (usually from Native
23. MEXICAN MURALISM
§ “Los Tres Grandes” were Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco & David Siqueiros.
§ All three were left wing Mexican artists who worked extensively in the USA.
§ They were influential because:
§ Each created large-scale works that seem to engulf the viewer.
§ All worked in a realist style but drew on elements of surrealism & expressionism.
§ They used strong, gestural brushstrokes to convey emotion & power.
Orozco’s Advance (1940)
Siqueiros's From the Dictatorship to the
24. EXISTENTIALISM’s role
§ This is a branch of philosophy explored
by Jean-Paul Sartre after the Great
Depression & WWII (a time of great
despair, alienation & uncertainty)
whose central tenet was:
“Being is doing”
§ Existentialists seek to find themselves
and the meaning of life through free
will, choice, & personal responsibility.
§ Sartre believed that people found out
who and what they were throughout
life, as they made choices based on
their experiences, beliefs, and outlook
Jean-Paul Sartre with wife & feminist
existentialist Simone De Beauvoir.
25. Key Existentialist ideas
§ All humans have free will.
§ Human nature is chosen through life choices.
§ By making choices, then having different experiences, we create our own
natures or identities.
§ A person is best when struggling against his or her individual nature,
fighting to improve his or her life.
§ A person is best when he or she is authentic – being true to him or herself,
and own values.
§ All decisions are accompanied by stress (“angst”) and consequences.
§ Importantly, Sartre posited that all “truth” is subjective and informed by
personal decisions, consequences, and experiences.
§ As a result, to “find oneself”, personal responsibility and discipline are crucial.
26. How EXISTENTIALISM influenced
1. “Being is doing” meant that focus should be on the process rather than
§ The painting was the record of the artist’s actions (and therefore, self).
2. By creating their works, artists would exercise their
§ Free will
§ In the creation of art works in a process of working out their identity and personal truth.
3. Existentialism emphasised “originality”; meaning that the artist “was
willing to have descendants but not ancestors”.
4. “Bad faith” (prior knowledge not personally experienced) was then
avoided in art.
27. JUNGIAN PSYCHOANALYSIS
§ Jackson Pollock in particular was
very interested in these ideas as he
had received Jungian
§ Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist
follower of Sigmund Freud, who
§ Jung believed in the importance of
bringing our subconscious to the
conscious realm, in order to develop
self-knowledge and peace of mind.
28. Jung’s Psychology and Art
§ AbEx artists believed that art
could be used as a cathartic outlet
for frustrated emotion or trauma.
§ Through their works, artists could
bring their subconscious minds
into the conscious realm through
“acting out” on the canvas.
§ Through that process of art-
making, the artists could acquire
self-knowledge & healing.
29. The ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST
“If they emptied their minds of preconceptions and
applied pigment with a maximum of spontaneity, the
images they made would be an expression of the deepest
levels of their beings…Art became a method of self-
- Anthony Everitt