Abstract Expressionism in New York


The emergence of Abstract Expressionism marks a major shift in the history of art. The New York School, as it’s also called, not only embodied a change in stylistic dynamics, but a geographic recentring of the art world in the wake of the Second World War. This was the point at which New York took over from Paris as the capitol of innovation in art. The ‘New York School’ took the torch from the ‘School of Paris’, adapting Modern European practices into a fresh vernacular. This new wave of artists infused emotion into the abstract, expressing their inner workings through colour and form. They broke free of the formal conventions of art, moving away from commonly accepted figurative subject matters to create their own new visual language.


‘No. 5/No.22’ by Mark Rothko (1950); photographed by Sergio Calleja


Abstract Expressionism was influenced by the Surrealist belief that art in its purest form comes from the subconscious. Its artists harnessed the automatism of Joan Miró’s practice, whereby he allowed art to flow through him while the conscious mind took a back seat. Though united in their sensibility, the New York School was split into two primary groups: the action painters and the colour field painters. Action painters relied heavily on process, attacking their canvases with a very physical practice. Jackson Pollock was an excellent example of this approach, splashing and slinging paint to create a symphony of colour in motion. Mark Rothko, on the other hand, demonstrated the colour field painters’ approach, whereby great swathes of paint were made to coalesce on the canvas, creating radiant displays of colours playing off one another. The product was a new take on art as a process-based phenomenon which reveals the deeper forces that move us to create – bursts of emotion expressed in abstract forms.

Tom has always felt a draw to New York and its boundary-pushing character. The creative energy of the city is part of what inspired us to put down our own roots there. Since opening our flagship American showroom in the New York Design Center last year, it’s been a pleasure experiencing New York from the inside. It’s in this spirit that we dive into one of the artistic movements which defines our cultural landscape. Join us for a deeper look at some of the key figures who blazed a new trail through Abstract Expressionism…


Jackson Pollock

‘Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)’ by Jackson Pollock (1950); photographed by Rob Corder


Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming in 1912 – though, it’s not his early years in Buffalo Bill country for which he’s remembered. Today he’s considered a seminal figure in New York’s art scene. He was an action painter who danced around gargantuan canvases spilling, dripping, and splashing paint. He translated his inner impulses into gestures, immortalising moments in paint. Pollock’s work is all about spontaneity, improvisation, and process over product. Art critic Harold Rosenberg explains: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Pollock’s work reflects the Abstract Expressionist inclination to create on a monumental scale, with great, sweeping canvases which stand as reflections of the artist’s psyche. It’s in this way that he endeavoured to tap into the universal sources which flow through us all, laying them bare in a new breed of art.


Lee Krasner

‘Seasons’ by Lee Krasner (1957) + ‘Hankchampion’ by Mark di Suvero (1960) + ‘Door to the River’ by Willem de Kooning (1960) (from right to left); photographed by Jérôme Decq


Lee Krasner was a New York native born to Russian parents in 1908. She was named Lena Krassner, though she adapted that not just to suit American sensibilities but also to satisfy her appetite for reinvention. This was a practice particularly common amongst the New York School. Mark Rothko, for example, did the same. It’s fitting, really, that these inventors of new abstract worlds and ways would live as they worked: in a spirit of genesis. Over the years Krasner’s style changed dramatically in both composition and palette. Though, she’s best remembered for her large-scale, brilliantly coloured paintings, in which defined shapes take on formal, partially three-dimensional qualities. Every iota of her paintings is fully charged with dynamism and life, engaging actively with the viewer. Despite this, she was more critical of her work than other Abstract Expressionists like her husband, Jackson Pollock. She was often drawn to edit her art, sometimes cutting elements from various paintings to create one ideal collage. On other occasions, Krasner would simply destroy pieces which she felt did not make the cut, leaving behind a relatively small but brilliant oeuvre as a result.


Willem de Kooning

‘Untitled III’ by Willem de Kooning (1975); photographed by Rob Corder


Willem de Kooning came to New York by way of Rotterdam, where he was born in 1904. He was influenced by the Armenian-American artist, Arshile Gorky and the Surrealist inflections to be found in his work. He was also moved by Pablo Picasso’s innovative Cubist creations. With the support of Abstract Expressionists like Franz Kline, he adapted Surrealistic thinking and Cubist forms into a new visual vernacular. Though he often sought inspiration in the female form, de Kooning took on a deeply abstract style which broke free from matters of politics and identity, instead focusing on the individual. As an action painter he tapped into the human core, creating from forces within and setting aside the instinct for rationality which attempts to intervene with pure artistic expression. His work, as a result, is intensely colourful and dynamic, emanating the exuberance of the human spirit.


Clyfford Still

‘1957-J No.1 (PH-142)’ by Clyfford Still (1957); photographed by Rob Corder


Clyfford Still hailed from Grandin, North Dakota, where he was born in 1904. He pinballed around North America studying and teaching art for some time before making his way to New York, where he fell in with the Abstract Expressionists. He established himself as one of the group’s colour field painters, drawing upon a common interest in religion and myth, which he recast in a universally poignant artistic language. Still filled great canvases with flame stitch-style blocks of colour in an effort to incite a contemplative, if not meditative, response in viewers. Fellow Abstract Expressionist, Barnett Newman expands on the subject: “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings”. There’s an elemental quality to Still’s work, which strips away conventions and associations to expose the core of creativity.


Mark Rothko

‘Green, Red, Blue’ by Mark Rothko (1955); photographed by Michael Newman


Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz was born in what is now Daugavpils, Latvia in 1903. He made his way to New York by way of Oregon, eventually Americanising his name to Mark Rothko. He was the quintessential colour field painter, creating all-enveloping canvases which are worlds unto themselves. He painted primarily in rectangular blocks of colour with soft, glowing edges. He bypassed the beautiful, instead working in the pursuit of the sublime. Rothko’s luminescent compositions confront – and often confound – the viewer. He, like the other colour field painters, was fascinated by religion in its oldest, forgotten sense. Barnet Newman, on behalf of the colour field painters, conveyed their approach as a means of “freeing ourselves of the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend…freeing ourselves from the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, and myth that have been the devices of Western European painting”. It was in this spirit that Rothko sought to elicit a quasi-religious experience through his art, fostering a connection to the deep currents which stir the psyche.




Text by Annabel Colterjohn