When Abstraction Was Cool

Lessons In Modern Art


“Abstract Expressionism Can Be Understood As A Period In American Art

Between 1940-1965 With Two Ideological Theories. Color Field and

Action Painting.”


–John Angeline,

Art Historian, PHD

A work of art should no longer be a mirror held up to man or nature. A painting should compel the viewer to see it for what it is, that is a certain arrangement of colors, forms, lines and textures on a surface. Abstract Expressionism stands as one of the pre-eminent and most influential art movements of the late 20th Century. Marking the 1950’s as a watershed of artistic innovation in which NYC became the center of the art world. Away from Paris, where Picasso and Mattisse dominated the cultural landscape during the first half of the Century. AB Expressionism as a theoretical and literary concept begins with the writings of two notable art critics, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. Rosenberg coined the phrase: “Action Painting” to describe the works of Pollock among others who articulated his literary claims as painting being an arena for action. Greenberg championed the notion of seeing painting as purity in form and composition as a field of color.

What is the meaning of literary painting in Abstract Expressionism, as it relates to color filed and action painting?

Form for the sake of form, color for the sake of color. In Europe before 1914, artist invented Modern styles with fantastical energy. Fauvism, Suprematism, Vorticism, Cubism and Nihilism. These movements within art and literature shared the same conceptual premise, henceforth one doesn’t paint or write “about anything my dear Mammals”, to borrow a line from a famous satirical Punch cartoon.   Within the Ab Expressionism framework one just paints, as Art should no longer be a mirror help up to nature, objects or any sort of objective references. A work of art should compel the viewer to see if for what is it, that is certain arrangements of colors and forms distributed onto a surface.

When Franz Kline joined De Kooning, Gorky and Pollock among others in a collective implosion towards developing Action Painting. Kline was identified  as the master of black and white using two colors as counterpoints in compositions of gestural velocity, combined with fierce tectonic collisions. Kline’s reduction of palette was instrumental in the development behind his individual style. Allowing him to more fully explore the evolution of painterly form as a process rather than technique. Line, shape, color, composition and texture are fundamental particles within the compositional framework within the oeuvre formulated by these artist.

Elements expressed in art via Action Painting and Color Field Abstraction, with literary support as evident is the writings of Rosenberg and Greenberg,

“Im always trying to bring colour into my paintings, but it keeps slipping away.”

–Franz Kine

From 1959-1961, Kline produced exuberant compositions of bold and vibrant color that exhibited all the major literary components behind Action Painting theoretical constructs. A high sense of architectonic structure embedded in muscular brushwork with the element of the “drip” as a central character is evident in the works of Pollock, De Kooning, Gorky and Kline. The gestural brushwork proclaimed by these artist, writers and philosophers reveled in the plasticity of paint, the power of art. A deeply penetrating and original subject matter with innovative implications, with a huge generational leap forward.

Breaking new visual ground away from the Modernist school of Paris and the notion of the human figure as a subject no longer ruled supreme.

Action Painting can be seen as a clear embracement of gesture, size and spontaneity within the works of Pollock, DeKonning, Gorky and Kline among others in the movement. In Action Panting the gesture and resulting brushstroke expressed themselves rather than  illustrating any extraneous meaning. The process of painting represented the content or subject matter within the picture plane. In such works, the temperament and character of the artist, his joys and despairs, are revealed immediately without recourse to the intermediary steps of developing a motif. A powerful case in point when we observe the paintings of Jackson Pollock as the ambassador supreme  behind the movement. Jackson, who discovered his all over drip style painting between 1947-50 became an overnight sensation before killing himself in a car crash while drinking during the late 1950s.

“I do not want to illustrate my feelings but only to express them, spontaneously and immediately in my art”

–Jackson Pollock

Pollock painting’s are a dramatic act of expression, even when Cubist formal elements still played a role in his early works. Within the gestural “drip” Pollock broke new ground in excavating American Art towards a new monumental ethos of originality. For Pollock, the canvas became an arena for action in which to choreograph his feelings while showcasing his process as all over gestural form onto a surface.  The idea of non-objectivity in his paintings is to Action Painting as Symbolism was for the Surrealist, and Mexican muralist for which Pollock was influenced as an art student during the 1930’s.

Action Painting | Gallery


Color Field abstraction is the nucleus revolving around the theories of Clement Greenberg. In color field, as expressed within the works of Rothko, Still, Hoffman, Louis and Barnett Newman there is a brand new way of understanding how a picture could be painted.

“Art is a matter  strictly of experience, not of principles, and what counts first and last in art is quality.”

–Clement Greenberg

The presence or absence of a recognizable image (as in figurative art) has no more to do with the value in painting or sculpture than the absence of a libretto has to do with the value in music. Taken on its own merits, no single parts or aspects decides the quality of a work of art as a whole. Rather, artist like Newman solved this riddle imposed by the history of art with enormous sophistication.

The basic idea to grasp within Color Field abstraction is to think of a painting as a “Field Of Color.”

How do you describe a sunset vanilla sky?

When photos emanating from the sun traveling at the speed of light to reach our observable retinal filter, we are left with a sense of poetic splendor. Color Field abstraction is about color, poetry, inner peace and form within a two dimensional picture place. One notable distinction between Color Field and Action Painting within ab expressionism is to think of them as matter and antimatter within a visual ecosystem.

Aesthetically, color field abstraction in painting is characterized as containing large fields of color, usually applied in a flat manner onto a surface using varying techniques. Staining and pouring using minimal use of brushwork to achieve an unified mood. The movement places less emphasis on gesture, brushstrokes and action in favor of an overall consistency of form and process. In color field painting, color is freed from gestural context and  the work of art becomes the subject in itself.

One notable visual artist of the color field movement was Morris Louis.

Almost half of a century after Morris Louis died, the monumental paintings executed by this eminent co-founder of the Color Field movement. Appear timeless as the moment he first poured luminous rivulets of paint across an unprimed matrix. Louis developed a visual language of pure art within the realm of serial painting. Spanning from 1934-1953, Louis experimented with the figure, form and abstraction only to unleash his first major series entitle: ” Veil Paintings” in 1954. The stripe paintings followed in 1961, one year before his untimely death. A stream of artistic consciousness beginning in 1954 with the “Veils” marked an eight year span that constituted his artistic maturity and the articulation of his singular vision.

The early 1960’s in NYC art world was not a segregated “conceptualist:” market driven monster we see today. It was rather an apex of artistic creativity and innovation as the primacy of Ab Expressionism was being challenged for the first time by works of Jasper Johns, Robert “bob” Rauschenberg, Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Louis however, remained focused on his own esthetic, and continued an artistic dialogue with luminaries such as Jackson Pollack, Barnet Newman and Helen Frankenthaler.

Color Field Painting | Gallery


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Categories: Art, Art Criticism, Art Journal Magazine, Culture, Digital Memoir, Essay Non-Fiction, Lessons In Modern ArtTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


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