A Guide to Abstract Expressionism

Expression is the act of conveying one’s thoughts and emotions. Expressionism is a movement in which artists seek to express the inner world of emotions. Abstract expressionism is when artists express the inner world of emotions through a virtually abstract work of art.

Convergence by Jackson Pollock (1952)

As the name suggests, these works can be really abstract. It can be a canvas painted with a solid colour or a urinal placed at 90 degrees from its original place (literally!). Often perceived as something “I can do that!” by the masses. But can we really make it?

The answer is both yes and no.


In the 19th century, many artists decided to think out of the box. They experimented by taking up the conventional subjects and stylizing it, simplifying it, complicating it.


Traditionally, paintings captured the subject as it was. Be it a still life or a historic painting. A portrait of person or a scene in daily life. Its basic composition, its resemblance to actual colours, the brush strokes and the finished surface are a few things that matter when we look at aforementioned paintings. For instance, Napoleon Crossing the Alps is highly detailed. There is a foreground (Napoleon and his horse) and a background, defining depth of the painting. The colours are natural and blended in such a way that brush strokes aren’t even visible.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David (1801-1805)

Meanwhile, abstract art lacks a clear focal point or a specific subject. Abstract expressionists use lines, geometric shapes, drops of paints and much more to create a single artwork. Kazuo Shiraga, a Japanese painter, even painted with his feet. Using the techniques applied to these painting technically anyone is capable regardless of artistic training. But only an artist could make their own painting. Looking at the Convergence by Jackson Pollock, it is a complex web of colourful lines going from everywhere to everywhere. Pollock applied the technique of surrealists. Instead of picturing something before drawing it, they let their hand move instinctively and focused on figures appearing on the scribbles. The idea was to create paintings from their subconscious. But Pollock didn’t revisit his paintings to find hidden figures or messages. Pollock hand movements in dripping the paint in various speed and direction are controlled. But these movements are controlled by his mind, thus an expression of his very own mind.

Conventional paintings portrayed real things like a mountain, a house or a woman wearing a pearl earring. They were expected to give some sort of moral or intellectual message. Whilst, abstract art portrayed feelings, thoughts and emotions which can’t be seen but are as real as any other thing. Wassily Kandinsky, a prominent name in abstract expressionism, believed that abstract IS realism. He described his artwork as, “... what the spectator lives or feels while under the effect of the form and colour combinations of the picture.” Paul Klee, another expressionist and a solider in World War I serving in the German army, wrote in 1915, “the more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.”


It should be noted that while can anyone make their own abstract art with their subconscious, these artists stand out because they actually made it, opposing the norm at the time. To create these masterpieces, the approach employed by these artists was different. They challenged the conventional and questioned the very ideals, resulting in an entire art movement.

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