One of the main divisions of abstract expressionism is gestural (or action) painting. As the name suggests,
gestural abstract expressionism shows the movement of the artist’s hand in recording broad strokes,
splashes, and drips of paint. The first, and perhaps best, of the abstract expressionists who worked in this
mode was Jackson Pollock. Pollock first studied with the American regionalist, Thomas Hart Benton, but
Pollock’s style changed when he began to undergo Jungian analysis for his psychological problems. Jung’s
ideas about archetypal forms that expressed the universal human psyche led Pollock to explore these
themes in his own art. The real breakthrough, however, came when Pollock discovered that the act of
painting was therapeutic—that moving around a large canvas on the floor, dripping and flinging paint,
allowed him to express and resolve his own psychological tensions. Pollock’s signature style with its
complex interweaving of dripped paint and its overall composition is seen in One: Number 31 (1950).
Willem de Kooning also used a gestural manner, but his brushwork takes on an aggressive quality, which is
especially disturbing in his paintings of women. In Woman, I (1951-2) he uses thick, slashing strokes to
create an image of a woman who glares and snarls at the viewer even though the signs of seduction (pink
high heels, large breasts) are still present.
The early work of most abstract expressionists reveals an interest in myth and psychological or biological
processes, but most abstract expressionists moved to a style that treated these ideas without using
recognizable subject matter (de Kooning is the exception here). Mark Rothko, for example, sometimes
depicted what looks like cell forms in layers of liquid, but then moved on to more generally explore the
ideas of separation and contrast by simply using large rectangles of color. Rothko’s painting No. 16 (Red,
Brown, and Black) (1958) shows his characteristic soft-edged forms that seem to float forward or backward
in space.
Barnett Newman similarly wanted to express mythic and religious ideas through expanses of color, as seen
for example, in his huge painting called Vir Heroicus Sublimis, (1950-51) a canvas nearly eight feet high and
eighteen feet long that is painted a uniform red, punctuated by five vertical lines. Rothko and Newman
represent a more contemplative type of abstract expressionism. What unifies the gestural painters and
painters like Rothko and Newman is their interest in using the formal qualities of paint to express ideas of
mythic or psychological importance.
The artists who followed the pioneering generation of abstract expressionists were less concerned with
myth and more interested in exploring the formal qualities of paint on canvas. Critics like Clement
Greenberg pointed to the falsehood of illusionistic painting, and saw modern art as heading toward pure
painting without subject matter—painting that did not deny that it was paint on a flat canvas. Artists
pursued this idea, called formalism, by eliminating evocative titles and suggestive forms. Helen
Frankenthaler, for example, turned to painting with broader sheets of color that emphasized the flatness
of the canvas. Frankenthaler poured and dripped thin paint on unprimed canvas; the paint soaked into the
fabric and blended with other colors in an unpredictable way.
Sculptors like Donald Judd followed in this trend toward literalness—the idea that the art object is just that,
an object we call art. His series of boxes, removes all subject matter, illusion, and evidence of the artist’s
hand. This movement to reduce the work of art to its more literal, “honest” form is called minimalism.
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