Research point 2 – Abstract Expression

We are asked to look at the work of Abstract Expressionists, such as Hans Hartung, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, as well as Tachism or Action painting.  According to the Tate, ‘the term action painters is applied to artists working from the 1940s until the early 1960s whose approach to painting emphasized the physical act of painting as an essential part of the finished work.’

When I saw the brief for this research point, I admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed.  The sheer number of artists who are bungled into this Abstract Expressionism category is mind-numbing in scope and still being added to on a daily basis.   I never really ‘got’ Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings but then I wasn’t around at the time when his innovative technique was being developed.  It’s easy, with hindsight in this digital age, to look back at his stuff and wonder what all the hoo-ha was about.  Today, artists constantly challenge the status quo with all manner of creative exploration, nothing is taboo.   Back then, however, the art world was still coming to terms with the after shocks of WW2

I have chosen to highlight a couple of paintings that normally don’t get much focus. Starting with this fabulous painting by Hans Hartung.

T1963-R6 1963 Hans Hartung 1904-1989 Purchased 1966

This painting was made by scratching rhythmic and sweeping lines into the top layer of a vinyl coating before it dried. Hartung developed this particular technique in the early 1960s.

(Image and Text from Tate website)

The Abstract Expressionist movement basically came into prominence around about 1947, after the publication of Possibilities  in New York*, however the term only came into widespread use around about 1952.   The array of artists who are clumped into the Abstract Expressionist genre include people like Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell etc.   

Some have said that Gorky was one of the founding fathers of Ab-Ex, I’ve always enjoyed the free spirit of his work and the movement:

Arshile Gorky Untitled 1944 Image: Bridgeman Education

When you look at images of some examples of art that has been categorised as abstract expressionism and clumped into this homogenous lump, it’s quite obvious how totally opposite these works are both in style, medium, size, approach, palette, texture and composition. The work of Clyfford Still, for example, is nowhere near similar to that of Robert Motherwell or Philip Guston, yet they are all labelled as Abstract Expressionists.

Clyfford Still PH-1 1953 Image ; Bridgeman Education
Robert Motherwell Spanish Elegy no. 17 1953 Image: Bridgeman Education
Philip Guston To Fellini 1958 Image: Bridgeman Education

I do find it a bit depressing also that few female artists were lauded (at least on the same level of slavish adoration as men) for their ‘abstract expressionist’ work during this time.  The photo published in LIFE magazine in January 1951 by Nina Leen, ‘The Irascibles‘ (sic) shows 15 artists and only one of them is a woman (Hedda Sterne) who, I believe, was made to stand on a chair.

Here’s a list with some of my fave examples of prominent female Ab-Ex painters from this era – Lee Krasner, Mary Abbott, Mary Joan ‘Jay’ DeFeo, Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler (inventer of the soak-stain effect), Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, Ethel Schwabacher. Michael West (born Corinne Michelle) and Alma Thomas.

Alma Thomas Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers 1968 Image: Bridgeman Education
Jay DeFeo The Annunciation 1957-59 Image:Bridgeman Education
Jay DeFeo Crescent Bridge 1 1972 Synthetic Polymers and mixed media on plywood.
Jay DeFeo The Rose 1958 – 66 Oil on canvas with wood and mica
Image: The JayDeFeo Foundation

Rarely is an artist so closely associated with a single work as is Jay DeFeo with her monumental painting The Rose. Begun in the late 1950s, when DeFeo, a central figure of the Beat generation of San Francisco, was just starting to garner widespread national recognition, the visionary work occupied the artist for eight years. Massive in scale, layered with nearly two thousand pounds of paint, the overpowering painting was already famous before its first exhibition in 1969 at the Pasadena Art Museum. It was next exhibited in San Francisco, then stored at the San Francisco Art Institute, where it languished for twenty-five years before a historic conservation restored it to public view. The Rose now resides in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

From The Jay DeFeo Foundation website


Foster, H and others  Art Since 1900 Modernism Antimodernism Postmodernism  Thames & Hudson (third Edition)  *p.404  (source for image of Jay DeFeo’s Crescent painting)

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