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'), improvisation, method acting, bebop jazz, colorfield painting


Abstract Expressionism (Ab-Ex) is the art of the New York School between around 1945 and 1960, and consists of expression through abstract elements, especially brushwork in action painting and colors in colorfield painting. The works below seem radical at first, but remember that the basic ideas behind both action painting and colorfield painting had been present since at least Van Gogh (red + green = ‘terrible passions’), and that the idea that the gestural, 'improvised' mark has meaning was already clearly articulated in Surrealist automatism.

Expression versus Self-Expression

Action Painting was fundamentally about self-expression:  to understand an action painting is to know something subjective about the artist, not something objective about the world or the human condition in general.  Although “self-expression” is often taken as being the goal of all art, it is actually very rare.  Michelangelo and Bernini didn’t express ‘themselves’ or their personal feelings:  they expressed the ideas of the Catholic Church; Mondrian didn’t express himself; he expressed the essence of the universe.  Even Van Gogh and Munch were extrapolating from how they themselves felt to express what they saw as universal human emotions, not just their unique take on things.  Hence we distinguish between works and movements that are expressive, which communicate widely-shared human experiences and feelings; and those that are self-expressive, which communicate things about the artist personally. Of what we’ve covered, pretty much only Surrealism and Action Painting are really ‘self-expressive’ movements.

Action Painting

So how is action painting a form of self-expression?  To 'read' action paintings we should see their marks and compositions not as nouns (objects, shapes, etc), but rather as verbs, as traces of the artist's actions -- hence the name. In turn, improvised action, that is, unplanned, spontaneous action, was seen as the best and most sincere way of expressing oneself.  Why?  What’s the logic?  How are the ideas of method acting and bebop jazz (both of which which also come to New York in the 1940s and 50s) similar? Be able to describe Pollock's and Frankenthaler's working methods and the kinds of marks they made, and be able to relate these methods to the logic of action painting.

Colorfield Painting

Know why Rothko considered his very reduced format of 'floating' fields of color was an inexhaustible structure for "dealing with human emotion, the human drama as much as I can possibly experience it."

Mark Rothko, Brown, Blue, Brown on Blue, Colorfield Painting, c. 1955

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, Action Painting, c. 1950

Pollock painting (photo by Hans Namuth)

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, Action Painting, c. 1950