Abstract Expressionism: Pollock and Kooning Changed Our Perception of Art

The aftermath of World War II created social conditions that inspired anxiety. The people of this time had to face the constant threat of a nuclear holocaust, the Cold War, the struggle of most countries to survive, the monopoly of power and prosperity concentrated in the West, and the remaining bad feelings associated with the losses caused by World War II. All of these anxieties and cultural experiences led directly to the development of Abstract Expressionism, and its two sub-styles of Action Painting and Color Field Painting.�¯�¿�½

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock was a master of Action Painting. He created his masterpieces on huge canvases. Instead of using brushstrokes like previous artists had done, Pollock used a technique that incorporated splattering the paint onto the canvas. The mastery of his technique allowed him to direct the direction and intensity of the splatters, as opposed to simply allowing chance to rule the creation. As a result, his pieces had meaning, depth, and specific shape. The execution of his compositions, and the characteristics that he was able to force the paint to convey on the canvas were orchestrated through the selection of the art medium and the strength of its application. “The viscosity of the paint, the speed and direction of its impact upon the canvas, its interaction with other layers of pigment” all added to the dimension and styling of the finished product. Pollock put his whole body into his work, using not only his hands to create but the other parts of his body as well. What separated Pollock from other artists was his complete commitment to the act of painting and creation of his art. This energy and commitment can be experienced through the viewing of one of his masterpieces like Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

De Kooning

De Kooning shared Pollack’s energy in the creation of his works, however he preferred the use of furious brush strokes to the splatter technique perfected by Pollock. While many of the Action Painters deviated from representationalism, De Kooning maintained modest contact with the “visible world.” In his work Woman II, a somewhat recognizable figure of a woman emerges from the vibrant and energetic brushstrokes. While this painting gives the impression that it was completed rapidly and on a whim, this painting actually took two years to finish. De Kooning returned to it time after time, correcting the canvas to reflect his inner vision. His intent in this piece was to create a humorous caricature of the “modern movie star” like Marilyn Monroe, however his subconscious torment displayed itself instead, and unleashed a frightening portrait of a nightmare siren. His work was often misunderstood because of the scary appearance his woman themes often took on, and because of this he was often labeled as a woman hater. However it was not his intent to create a negative image of a woman, but instead he wanted to create a figurative image of a primitive goddess “frightening yet seductive.” De Kooning also had an Old World fear of empty space, as to him this emptiness represented the “existential void.” It has been speculated that this is why he tended to completely fill his canvases with color.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko belonged to the next Abstract Expressionism Movement, Color Field Painting. This technique employed a “thin, translucent color wash” over a canvas. While a variety of mediums were used, acrylics became a favorite because of its ability to be diluted. Rothko interpreted Surrealism and Action Painting styles through the use of blocks of colors that were intended to act of characters from a dream. In an attempt to concentrate his style to create the greatest level of clarity. As a result his styles merged together until the “aggressiveness of Action Painting” had been subdued. This in turn resulted in a “contemplative stillness.” One of his works that illustrates this new quality is White and Greens in Blue. This painting is made up of three rectangular blocks of colors that have blurred edges, melting the shapes and almost submerging them into the background color. The two darker toned rectangular blocks melt farther into the background allowing the opaque white block to stand out. The qualities of Rothko’s work are based on the “delicate equilibrium of the shapes, their strange interdependence, and the subtle variations in hues.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler was another Color Field Painter, however her style was very different from Rothko’s color block paintings. The divergence of Frankenthaler’s style from Rothko’s can be seen in her painting The Bay. This painting uses a stained canvas backdrop and utilizes Action Painting biomorphic forms to create the basic shapes, however she eliminates the “handwriting” brushwork characteristic of artists like Gorky and De Kooning. The result of this culmination of techniques is a lyrical interpretation of lines, colors, and tonalities.


Janson, H.W. & Janson, Anthony F. (2004). History of Art: The Western Tradition. (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall.

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