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What Does The Term "Abstract Expressionism" Mean?

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

In 1919, the term "Abstract expressionism" was first used by the German art magazine Der Sturm (The Storm) published between 1910 and 1932.

In 1929 in New York City, the American art historian and the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Hamilton Barr Jr. (January 28, 1902 – August 15, 1981) used the "Abstract Expressionism" term for the first time in relation to works by the theosophical abstraction forerunner Wassily Kandinsky.

In New York, Abstract expressionism arose during World War II

During the period leading up to and during World War II, modernist artists, art critics, and art historians, as well as important art collectors and art dealers, fled Europe for a safe haven in the United States. In New York, Abstract expressionism arose during World War II and began to be showcased during the early forties at galleries such as The Art of This Century Gallery.

After World War II, in 1946, the New Yorker American weekly magazine's art critic Robert Myron Coates (April 6, 1897 – February 8, 1973) coined the term “abstract expressionism” in reference to the works of Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and others.

The term "Abstract expressionism" was used by Coates to describe the post-World War II art movement developed in New York City in the 1940s.

Abstract Expressionism was the first specifically American movement to resonate internationally and put New York at the center of the avant-garde Western art movement, a role formerly filled by Paris.

Abstract expressionism, like its predecessor surrealism, emphasized spontaneous, automatic, or subconscious creations.

Lucifer, an abstract expressionism painting by Jackson Pollock
Lucifer, an abstract expressionism painting by Jackson Pollock

The movement's name is derived from the combination of the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of the European abstract schools.

Abstract Expressionism has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, emotional, and nihilistic, spontaneity characterized many of the abstract expressionists' works.

Abstract expressionists' paintings share certain characteristics.

In the 1940s, The Art of This Century, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Julien Levy Gallery, and a few other galleries were willing to follow the work of the New York Vanguard. During the late 1940s, abstract expressionism spread quickly throughout the United States, but the epicenters of Abstract Expressionism were New York City and the San Francisco Bay area of California.

Abstract expressionists' paintings share certain characteristics including working on large canvases and the importance of the edges as well as the center of the canvas.

Abstract Expressionism represented the transformation of painting into an existential drama, The piece of art was not meant to express a picture but to record a painting event, the canvas was "an arena to act". The finished painting is only the physical residue of the actual rituals of art which were in the process of the painting's creation.

Abstract Expressionism's biggest moment

During the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was considered representative of the US as a haven of free thought as well as a challenge to both the socialist realist styles prevalent in communist nations and the dominance of the European art markets.

Abstract Expressionism's biggest moment came when it was decided to paint just to paint and the rituals of making a work of art were the main focus of abstract expressionists.

In general, Abstract expressionism expanded and liberated the artists' procedures of creating a piece of art and represented the total nihilistic liberation from value.

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