Exercise: Reflecting on abstract expressionism

What is Abstract Expressionism?

This web page puts into words what Abstract Expressionism is better than I could.  From my reading of it there are 2 styles –

  • Action Painting by artists such as Jackson Pollack who found his own way of expressing himself by dripping and pouring the paint on to canvas laid out on the floor.
  • Colour Field Painting by artists like Mark Rothko who used large expanses of colour on his canvases to express his feelings.

An interesting set of videos from 2010 showing the MoMA Abstract Expressionism Exhibition.

and a student resource page from MoMA ‘What is Abstract Expressionism’.


  • In your opinion, to what extent does a concern with elemental humanity represent a reaction to the cataclysmic events of 1939-45 and the displacement of so many Europeans, including a number of artists, in the wake of the Second World War?

I’m sure for artists that lived through the events of World War II that it would surely have taken a person with no feelings for their fellow man for it not to have  had a profound effect on their art works produced after this period.  Abstract Expressionism set out to depict their feelings and reactions to this period of history but not in any realistic way.

  • Rothko said that, ‘The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.  And if you, as you say, are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point’ (p. 838).  Does it matter if viewers of art works ‘miss the point’ provided that they take something from it?

As I’ve only seen Rothko’s work in books or on TV I only see blocks of colour so can’t really comment on the ‘religious experience’ he mentions, perhaps if I could stand in front of one of his paintings I may experience it?

  • Is it possible to make any sort of formal analysis of these artists’ works – or of the Pop Art discussed on pp. 845-77?

It is difficult to analyze art works from this period compared with earlier works.  You can write about colour, shape, texture and other technical aspects of a painting but they can be difficult to read – for instance what is the artist trying to say?


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