After the second World War, America becomes the new artistic nucleus of the world, especially New York, for many artists had to leave Europe. The Abstract Expressionism movement was marked by artists who don’t necessarily have the same style of work, but all thrive to cause an expressive effect in their work. The term that names the movement was used in 1946 by the art critic Robert Coates in the New York Times when referring to the abstract work of this group of upcoming artists, which lasted roughly from the beginning of the 1940’s to the 1960’s. They organized their first exposition in 1951, at the Museum of Modern Art, displaying paintings and sculptures.
Because of a Federal project designed to include the artists more in society, most of the artists of the Abstract Expressionism were already working since the 1930’s. This project usually required artists to paint murals and most continued using large formats for their work. Many artists involved in this development ended up rebelling against its regulations, as it aspired for more nationalist works that portrayed a romantic and patriotic American scene – being urban or rural.
There was an urge from the new generation of artists to abstract their work and move away from a pictorial representation. Fauvism and Futurism were a significant influence during this period, as well as Surrealism, for many artists would base their work on Carl Jung’s and Sigmund Freud’s studies of psychoanalysis – especially Freud's’ views on the unconscious mind, the myth, and memories. Also, many Surrealist artists move to America after World War II and exhibited their work there.
During the second half of the 1940’s, the Abstract Expressionism movement gains strength and divide into two distinct segments of work. One of the styles is deeply inspired by the sensitive and spontaneous nature of the Surrealists, as the artists explored the expressive power of loose and gestural brush strokes. This was meant as a search of the artist’s most inner and unconscious self. The artists Jackson Pollock along with Willem De Kooning were the leading artists to explore this way of painting and created groundbreaking work. Pollock is especially notable for creating action painting as he lays the canvas on the floor and paints by throwing drips of paint while walking around it.
The other style was the complete opposite of action painting as it looked to exclude all elements thought as irrelevant. These works were marked by significant areas of color, mostly flat. Barnett Newman had an idea of working with the metaphysical experience of the viewer, exploring the sublime and losing the need for a theme. The Lithuanian painter Mark Rothko also worked with this style, painting Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red) in 1949. Rothko abandons any reference to imagery as he paints one luminous rectangle of color over another. This painting is a bit bigger than the height of a person, making the relation between viewer and painting more intimate. Rothko was quite aware of the effect a painting this size had and purposely used large formats, as well as a sensible domain of color, to emerge the viewer in the experience of the painting.
Some artists of the Abstract Expressionism experimented with both styles, one at a time or both in the same work. An excellent example of the result of this fusion was Robert Motherwell’s work. In 1948, he began a series where he mixes areas of flat and saturated colors with expressive brushstrokes, portraying the feeling the Spanish civil war left in the world, resulting in more than 140 paintings.
In 1950, a group of 28 artists of the movement signed a letter for the president of the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, claiming that the jury present was averse to Abstract Expressionism. Most artistic institutions thought the modern movement was only interested in innovating with technical radicalism and that the work had no deeper meaning. In part, this was conceived because of the art critic Clement Greenberg and his thoughts on the movement. In fact, Greenberg was enthusiastic about Abstract Expressionism and became a sort of spokesman for the movement, but writes mainly about the formal and technical aspects of the artwork, instead of giving more importance to the fundamental significance.
Unfortunately, the movement is usually linked to a conservative and individualized extreme right-wing thought, as it was used as anti-communist propaganda – even though this is not that case for most artists involved with this liberating movement.