The dominant movement in American painting in the late 1940s and 1950s, characterized by a desire to convey powerful emotions through the sensuous qualities of paint, often on canvases of huge size. It was the first major development in American art to achieve international status and influence, and it is often reckoned the most significant art movement anywhere since the Second World War. The energy and excitement it brought to the American art scene helped New York to replace Paris as the world capital of contemporary art, and to many Americans the heyday of the movement has already acquired a kind of legendary status as a golden age.
The phrase ‘Abstract Expressionism’ had originally been used in 1919 to describe certain paintings by Kandinsky, but in the context of modern American painting it was first used by the New Yorker art critic Robert Coates in 1945; by the end of the decade it had become part of the standard critical vocabulary. The painters embraced by the term worked mainly in New York and there were various ties of friendship and loose groupings among them, but they shared a similarity of outlook rather than of style—an outlook characterized by a spirit of revolt against tradition and a desire for spontaneous freedom of expression. The stylistic roots of Abstract Expressionism are complex, but despite its name it owed more to Surrealism—with its stress on automatism and intuition—than to Expressionism: a direct source of inspiration came from the European Surrealists who took refuge in the USA during the Second World War. The most famous Abstract Expressionist is Jackson Pollock, whose explosive Action Painting best sums up the movement, but the work of other leading exponents was sometimes neither abstract (the leering Women of de Kooning) nor expressionist (the serene visions of Rothko). Even allowing for these wide differences, however, there are certain qualities that are basic to most Abstract Expressionist painting: the preference for working on a large scale; the emphasis placed on surface qualities, so that the flatness of the canvas is stressed; the adoption of an all-over type of treatment, in which the whole area of the picture is regarded as equally important; the glorification of the act of painting itself; the conviction that abstract painting could convey significant meaning and should not be viewed in formalist terms alone; and a belief in the absolute individuality of the artist (for which reason most of the Abstract Expressionists disliked being labelled with an ‘ism’, preferring New York School as a group designation).
Alongside de Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko, the painters who are considered central to Abstract Expressionism include Gorky, Gottlieb, Guston, Kline, Motherwell, Newman, and Still. Most of them struggled for recognition early in their careers, but during the 1950s the movement became an enormous critical and financial success. It had passed its peak by 1960, but several of the major figures continued productively after this and a younger generation of painters carried on the Abstract Expressionist torch. Sculptors as well as painters were influenced by the movement, the leading figures including Ibram Lassaw (1913–2003), Seymour Lipton (1903–86), and Theodore Roszak (1907–81). By 1960, also, reaction against the emotionalism of Abstract Expressionism was under way, in the shape principally of Pop art and Post-Painterly Abstraction. Indeed, much of the subsequent history of American art can be written in terms of developments from or responses to the movement, and Robert Hughes considers that its success has ‘encouraged a phony grandiloquence, a confusion of pretentious size with scale, that has plagued American painting ever since’. See also abstract art.