a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

Abstract Expressionism

people, terms, and concepts: self-expression versus expression, action painting (also known as 'gesture painting'), colorfield painting

This topic examines a group of artists in the mid-twentieth century (largely in America) called the 'Abstract Expressionists,' who largely fell into two different sub-groups:  action painters and colorfield painters.

          How is the name ‘Abstract Expressionism’ a good name for this movement? How have we seen the roots of Abstract Expressionism in earlier movements, such as Romanticism, Symbolism, and Expressionism? What is ‘new’ about Ab-Ex?

          How is ‘self-expression’ different from ‘expression’?

          What is ‘action painting’? Why was action painting considered to be a good way for the artist to express herself? Why was improvisation considered important to action painting? Why did each action painter tend to come up with his or her own unique technique and/or style? Why did all of the works by a given action painter tend to be in the same technique or style?

          What is ‘colorfield painting’? Why did Rothko consider color combinations to be capable of expressing all of “human emotion, the human drama as much as I can possibly experience it”?

Mark Rothko, Brown, Blue, Brown on Blue, Colorfield Painting, 1953

How can a work consisting only of color areas be seen as expressive? What kind of feeling is this work expressive of, and how did Rothko’s choices of color convey that feeling? (Consider hue, value, and chroma.)

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, Action Painting, 1952

What was Frankenthaler’s technique for painting? How is it different from Pollocks? How is it self-expressive, and what does it say about Frankenthaler?

Pollock painting, 1950 (photo by Hans Namuth)

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, Action Painting, 1950

What was Pollock’s technique for painting? How is this technique ‘self-expressive’ and what does it express about Pollock?