Guide to Abstract Expressionism in Non-Representational Art
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. Abstract Expressionism: Definition
  2. Birth of Abstract Expressionism
  3. Key Figures in Abstract Expressionism
  4. Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism
  5. How to Appreciate Abstract Expressionism
  6. Abstract Expressionism Today
  7. Notable Works of Abstract Expressionism
  8. Abstract Expressionism vs. Other Art Movements

Imagine a world of art where colors dance in wild abandon and forms defy clear definition. This world is more than a mere imagination—it's the captivating realm of abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism is like an uncharted territory, a place where emotion and intuition find an unrestricted canvas. Now, buckle up as we set off on a journey to explore the intriguing world of abstract expressionism, where every stroke is a testament to an artist's inner world.

Abstract Expressionism: Definition

Simply put, abstract expressionism is a post-World War II art movement that originated in the United States. But it's much more than that. It's a bold rebellion against traditional art norms and a celebration of individual emotion and intuition. Now, let's break down the concept to its core components.

The 'Abstract' in Abstract Expressionism

Abstract speaks to the non-representational aspect of this art form. There's no visible apple or sunset here. Instead, you'll find:

  • Bold colors that seem to have a life of their own
  • A blur of lines, shapes, and forms that defy easy interpretation
  • Unconstrained brushwork that breaks free from the shackles of form and figure

Abstract art doesn't try to show you an exact replica of the world. Instead, it invites you to see the world as the artist felt it.

The 'Expressionism' in Abstract Expressionism

Expressionism here refers to the artist's unfiltered expression of their inner world. In abstract expressionism:

  1. Emotions rule supreme: The canvas is not a place for restraint. It's where emotions—joy, sorrow, fear, hope—take form.
  2. Intuition guides the hand: There's no pre-set plan or blueprint. It's about the artist and their instinct, their intuitive response to the canvas and the colors.

In essence, expressionism in this context is about giving free rein to the subconscious, allowing it to dictate the journey of the brush.

So, when we talk about abstract expressionism, we're talking about an art form that is a raw and spontaneous outpouring of emotion—unrestrained, unconfined, and often, unexplainable. It's like a visual diary, documenting the inner tumult of the artist, making every piece deeply personal and unique.

Birth of Abstract Expressionism

Now that we know what abstract expressionism is all about, let's journey back in time to discover its origins. This is a tale of rebellion and revolution, of artists breaking free from the confines of convention to embrace their instinct and intuition.

Post-War Turmoil: A Fertile Ground

Abstract expressionism was born in the aftermath of World War II. This was a time of turmoil, and the world was grappling with change. Artists too felt this upheaval. They yearned for a form of expression that could communicate the raw emotions of this era. And so, they began to:

  • Experiment with form, moving away from traditional representation
  • Use color and texture in new and vibrant ways
  • Let their intuition guide their brush, pushing the boundaries of what was considered art

Out of this desire to communicate the chaos and complexity of their era, abstract expressionism was born.

New York: The Epicenter of Change

While the seeds of abstract expressionism were being sown worldwide, it was in New York that they found the most fertile ground. Some reasons for this include:

  1. New York was a haven for artists fleeing the war in Europe. This influx of fresh perspectives helped stoke the flames of innovation.
  2. The city was ripe with artistic energy and experimentation. Galleries, museums, and art schools were opening up to new ideas and styles.
  3. Artists had the freedom to express without fear of censorship or reprisal.

Thus, New York became the epicenter of the abstract expressionism movement, and from there, the waves of change spread across the globe.

So, the birth of abstract expressionism was not an isolated event. It was a response to the world's changes—an artistic revolution that allowed artists to express their deepest feelings and intuitions in a way that hadn't been seen before.

Key Figures in Abstract Expressionism

With the stage set for a radical shift in art, a group of artists stepped forward, wielding their brushes as weapons of change. Let's get acquainted with these pioneers who dared to defy the norm and reshape the world of art through abstract expressionism.

Jackson Pollock: Master of Drip Painting

When talking about abstract expressionism, it's impossible not to mention Jackson Pollock. An artist who truly embodied the spirit of this movement, Pollock was known for his:

  • Unique technique of drip painting, where he would drip or pour paint onto a canvas
  • Emotional intensity that resonated through his works
  • Rejection of the easel, opting instead to place his canvas on the floor to fully immerse himself in his work

Pollock's work is a perfect example of how abstract expressionism allows artists to channel their emotions and intuition directly onto the canvas.

Mark Rothko: The Power of Color

Another titan of abstract expressionism is Mark Rothko. Unlike Pollock, Rothko's works weren't characterized by wild splatters of paint, but by large, floating blocks of color. Rothko:

  1. Believed in the emotional potential of color to stir profound feelings in the viewer
  2. Used color contrasts and harmonies to create a sense of depth and space
  3. Designed his works to be viewed from a close distance, for a more intimate, immersive experience

Rothko's work demonstrates another facet of abstract expressionism: the ability to evoke emotion not through form, but through color.

Pollock and Rothko are just two examples of the many artists who shaped abstract expressionism. Each brought their unique perspective and technique, contributing to the rich tapestry of this art movement.

Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism

Now that we've met some of the key players in abstract expressionism, let’s delve a little deeper into what makes this art form stand out. Abstract expressionism isn't confined by strict rules or formulas, but there are a few shared traits that help us recognize this unique style.

Non-Representational Art

First and foremost, abstract expressionism is a form of non-representational art. That means, instead of trying to recreate an accurate depiction of physical reality, artists:

  • Focus on creating art that exists for its own sake
  • Express their internal emotions, ideas or experiences directly onto the canvas

It's like trying to paint a feeling or a thought. Sounds pretty cool, doesn't it?

Spontaneity and Improvisation

In abstract expressionism, there's a significant emphasis on the act of painting itself. The artists:

  1. Often work intuitively, letting their emotions guide their actions
  2. Use spontaneous and improvisational techniques, adding an element of unpredictability to their work

It's kind of like jazz music, but with paint!

Scale and Space

Many abstract expressionist works are known for their large scale. They:

  • Often cover entire walls, enveloping the viewer in the experience
  • Use the concept of space in innovative ways, with the canvas often seen as an arena for action

Next time you see a giant canvas filled with bold splashes of color, you'll know that it could be the work of an abstract expressionist!

With these characteristics in mind, you're now well-equipped to recognize and appreciate the nuances of abstract expressionism.

How to Appreciate Abstract Expressionism

Understanding and appreciating abstract expressionism can sometimes seem like a daunting task. But fear not, there's no secret code to crack or hidden messages to decipher. Here are some tips that might help you connect with this unique form of art on a deeper level.

Open Your Mind

Abstract expressionism isn't about what you see, it's about what you feel. So:

  • Try to approach it with an open mind and let go of the need to find recognisable shapes or objects
  • Remember, the artists are trying to convey emotions and intuition, not recreate physical reality

Think of it as a rollercoaster ride for your emotions!

Take Your Time

Abstract expressionist art isn't something you can rush through. To truly appreciate it:

  1. Take the time to observe the artwork from different angles
  2. Pay attention to the textures, colors and shapes and how they make you feel

It's a bit like tasting a complex dish, where you need to slow down to appreciate the different flavors.

Engage Your Imagination

One of the great things about abstract expressionism is that it leaves a lot of room for personal interpretation. So:

  • Don't be afraid to let your imagination run wild
  • Remember, there's no right or wrong interpretation, so trust your instincts

Who knows, you might discover something about yourself in the process!

With these tips, you're ready to dive into the world of abstract expressionism and experience the raw emotional power of non-representational art!

Abstract Expressionism Today

Abstract expressionism continues to have a profound influence on the art world, even after seven decades. Today, its impact is seen in various ways, from museum collections to contemporary art practices. Let's explore this a bit more.

Presence in Museums and Galleries

Today, you can find works of abstract expressionism gracing the walls of many major museums and galleries around the world. These include:

  • The Museum of Modern Art in New York, where you can see works by Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko.
  • Tate Modern in London, which boasts pieces by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

These displays are a testament to the enduring appeal of abstract expressionism.

Impact on Contemporary Art

Abstract expressionism has also left a lasting imprint on contemporary art. Many artists today:

  1. Draw inspiration from the freedom and emotional intensity of abstract expressionism
  2. Use techniques like dripping paint or layering colors, reminiscent of the original movement

In this way, the spirit of abstract expressionism lives on in the art world.

Art Market

Finally, works of abstract expressionism continue to fetch high prices at auctions, reflecting their ongoing popularity among art collectors. For instance:

  • In 2018, a painting by Jackson Pollock sold for a whopping $58.4 million!
  • Works by Mark Rothko have also been known to break records at auctions

All this goes to show that abstract expressionism still holds a special place in the hearts of art enthusiasts.

In conclusion, abstract expressionism continues to reverberate through the art world, displaying the enduring power of emotion and intuition in non-representational art.

Notable Works of Abstract Expressionism

Abstract expressionism has given us some truly remarkable works of art that captured the raw emotion and intuition of the artists. Let's take a look at a few standouts.

"No. 5, 1948" by Jackson Pollock

One of the most famous works of abstract expressionism is undoubtedly "No. 5, 1948" by Jackson Pollock. This painting is a perfect example of Pollock's innovative drip technique. He dripped commercial-grade oil-based paint onto a large canvas laid on the ground, creating a web of colors that appear chaotic but are actually highly controlled.

"Woman, I" by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning's "Woman, I" is another significant work in the abstract expressionist movement. The painting, created over two years, represents a series of powerful, almost primal, female figures. The artwork reflects de Kooning's struggle and fascination with the female form.

"Orange, Red, Yellow" by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko's "Orange, Red, Yellow" is a stunning example of his color field paintings. Rothko layered thin washes of color to create a glowing, luminous effect. The painting invites viewers to immerse themselves in the hues and experience their emotional resonance.

These works, along with many others, mark the high points of abstract expressionism, perfectly embodying the movement's aim to unleash emotion and intuition through non-representational art.

Abstract Expressionism vs. Other Art Movements

Abstract expressionism holds a unique position in the world of art, but how does it stack up against other art movements? Let's compare it with a couple of well-known movements to see how it stands out.

Abstract Expressionism vs. Impressionism

Impressionism, born in the 19th century, aimed to capture fleeting moments and the play of light in the natural world. It's characterized by small, thin brush strokes, and often depicts outdoor scenes. On the other hand, abstract expressionism doesn't focus on depicting reality. Instead, it uses color and form to evoke emotions, often through bold, gestural techniques. While impressionism gives you a moment in time, abstract expressionism gives you a peek into the artist's mind.

Abstract Expressionism vs. Cubism

Cubism, pioneered by artists like Picasso, breaks subjects into geometric shapes and depicts them from multiple viewpoints. It's a highly intellectual and analytical style. In contrast, abstract expressionism is all about emotion and intuition. It doesn't break down the world into shapes; instead, it builds up emotions into a visual language of color and form.

Every art movement has its unique characteristics and appeal. However, abstract expressionism stands apart in its focus on expressing deep, personal emotions and intuition through non-representational art. It doesn't tell you what to feel — it lets you feel.

If you're fascinated by abstract expressionism and eager to explore non-representational art further, don't miss the workshop 'Expressing Your Unique Artistic Vision' by Michael Ryan. This workshop will help you unlock your creative potential and guide you in expressing your unique artistic vision through abstract and non-representational art forms.