Modern Abstract Art versus Abstract Expressionism

Claude Monet impressionism painting    


In this article, we will explore modern art versus abstract expressionism.

Modern abstract art is that which was produced in North America and Europe from the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. Experts are still in disagreement about the exact moment of its birth but the works of James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet are considered by some, to reflect the emphasis on visual sensation as opposed to the depiction of objects. On the other hand, the majority of experts argue that the early 1900s and the work of artists like Kadinsky, Malevich, Delaunay and Tatlin is when it began. Kadinsky’s body of work from 1909 – 1911 is considered the first to be purely modern abstract art.

Wassily Kandinsky expressionism painting

(Wassily Kandinsky)

 What defines modern abstract art?

Modern abstract art is defined by the use of visual expression in the form of shape, form, color, and line and the end result is independent of visual references to people, landscapes or objects. Modern abstract art creators do not deal with the representational interpretation of their subject, leaving it to the viewer to identify. The human suffering offset by the First World War, The Great Depression, and the Second World War created the need in artists to find new voices to communicate everything from emotions, spiritual beliefs, and memories.

The rise of Abstract Expressionism

Arshile Gorky expressionism painting 

(Arshile Gorky)

There were precursors to Abstract Expressionism, these included artists like Arshile Gorky and Hans Hofmann, each having a different style of abstract painting. Gorky used free, delicately linear and liquid paint applications to create suggestive biomorphic shapes, while Hofmann used strong brushwork to create dynamic and textured art. While Gorky and Hofmann showed the American artists possibilities of expression and brush work, Piet Mondrian and Max Ernst represented the revolutionary spirit that artists needed in order to break away from the boundaries of traditional painting. Mondrian wrote: “To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual.”

America became home to many European artists in the 1930s and 1940s. These painters, fleeing from war-torn Europe brought with them ultramodern ideas that influenced the emerging Abstract Expressionism movement in America. Artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, William de Kooning and many others, who mostly lived, worked and exhibited in Greenwich Village, New York were influenced by these new ideas.

Hank Hofmann expressionism painting

(Hans Hofmann)

The work of these artists at the time was comprised of many different styles, each varying in techniques and expressions, but they all shared a few characteristics.  Their paintings were abstract and did not depict visible forms.  Many of these artists painted on huge canvases in order to be able to capture the visual effects of their techniques.

Emerging Types of Abstract Expressionism 

The first group was known as the action painter and used expressive brushstrokes, often with large brushes, and their paintings consisted of motions. Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning are both considered to be action painters, and Pollock often worked with his canvases on the ground. When he poured or splashed paint directly onto the canvases, he was able to use the force of his whole body to create. De Kooning built richly colored and textured images with his expressive brushstrokes, while Kline used black strokes on white canvas to create stark, powerful outlines.

Robert Motherwell painting            

(Robert Motherwell)

In the middle were a group of painters like Guston and Frankenthaler whose work was more delicate with fluid shapes. Motherwell and Gottlieb belonged here too, even though they represented a different style of more clearly structured calligraphic style of art.

Adolph Gottlieb expressionism painting 

(Adolph Gottlieb)

A third group created simple works of art that included large areas of color, meant to draw the viewer into meditation or contemplation. Their work is considered subtle and the least expressive emotionally. This group included Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clifford Still. They were concerned with the spiritual and other concerns of the time. Rothko used solid colored rectangular area composites in stunning combinations. This technique is known as color-field painting.

Mark Rothko expressionism painting

(Mark Rothko)

Impact of Abstract Expressionism

The postwar world saw the creative center of the art world shift from Paris to New York. It heralded the beginning of Abstract Expressionism and its questions about human existence; influencing the art scenes in both America and Europe in the 1950s. This group of artists, each one individual in thought and style, strove to find expression through abstraction for internal psychological struggle, the struggle of man against nature, the quest for spirituality and many other concerns, mainly born out of their restless nature and the times that they lived in. For them, painting was an existential attempt to express themselves and the desires of all humans.

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