Abstract Expressionism

Although it is often considered the most prominent art movement to have emerged in postwar America, abstract expressionism remains resistant to sweeping definitions. Certain aesthetic and compositional elements generally link the artists in this movement, such as an emphasis on the canvas’s flatness, “all-over” approaches to image making, and a proliferation of large-scale, non-representational works made in the 1940s, 50s and 60s in the US. Yet beyond these superficial consistencies, the term abstract __expressionism describes a range of highly individual intentions and processes. The artists of this movement are motivated by a desire to express, without depicting recognizable objects, their private experiences and psychological states. As a result, each comes to develop a personal visual language that can be seen almost as an autograph; each of their works reflect the aesthetic signature of its maker.

Clyfford Still’s jagged, overlapping forms reference the canyons and waterfalls of his native Northwest [1981.136], whereas Franz Kline’s tough black and white marks evoke the grit and severity of the New York streetscape he prized [1968.18]. Adolph Gottlieb embraces a more timeless subject matter with his floating orbs amidst dense fields of paint [1965.27], a sensibility opposed to Sam Francis’s aggressive suggestion of compression and enclosure [2009.16.4]. Lee Krasner brings a complex abstract structure to bear on her colorful floral motifs [1968.10], while James Brooks achieves a similar organic sensibility owing as much to the psychological intensity of surrealism as to sources in nature [2005.72.1]. Jackson Pollock's revolutionary, all-over paint drips demonstrate a controlled exuberance and new emphasis on the act of producing art [1950.87]. Finally, Robert Motherwell’s rhythmic slashes of black paint over a cool blue field reflect his raw emotional response to the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War [1967.7]. Many of these artists believed that the subconscious could be a source of abstract images and marks that would be universally understood. Through dreams and the process of automatism (an intuitive or spontaneous method of drawing or painting similar to doodling), they sought to probe beneath the rational, conscious mind and unite the world through a new visual language. They believed in the power of abstract art to directly communicate profound spiritual and philosophical truths.

Adapted from

  • Ken Kelsey, Gail Davitt, Mary Ann Allday, Barbara Barrett, and Troy Smythe, DMA unpublished material, Contemporary Art and Design at the Dallas Museum of Art, Teaching Packet, 1995.

  • DMA Gallery text, 2009.

Related Multimedia

Ben Lima, assistant professor of art and art history, University of Texas at Arlington, discusses abstract expressionism
Seventh lecture in Season 2 of DARE's Second Saturday Lecture Series. In this season speakers respond to Clement Greenberg's essay "Avant Garde and Kitsch." Zinsser is "one of the younger generation of New York abstract painters" and cofounded Journal of Contemporary Art

Fun Facts

  • Of abstract expressionism, Barnett Newman wrote, in 1948, "We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or 'life,' we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings."

Web Resources

  • Smarthistory
    Read "The Impact of Abstract Expressionism."

  • Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
    Read an essay about Abstract Expressionism.

  • MoMA
    Explore themes of Abstract Expressionism.