What is: Abstract Expressionism?

Eleanor Nairne

‘By now, you and I know what we mean when we say it. But it certainly hasn’t defined anything. If you take the Abstract Expressionists and try to break down the difference between [Barnett] Newman and [Jackson] Pollock, let’s say, where are you other than that big loose loophole called Abstract Expressionism?’ – Lee Krasner

Curator Eleanor Nairne explores the commonalities and divergences between the artists we have come to know as Abstract Expressionists. What is the underlying connection between these works that seem so different in terms of colour, form, idea and material?

Nairne unpacks the term paying critical attention to the work of Lee Krasner, a painter who refused to settle on a ‘signature image’, a uniquely identifiable style and mode of working which was so important to her contemporaries like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline.

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Abstract Expressionism is quite a loose term used to define a group of artists working around New York, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was not a term that was applied at the time, so it was not a term that they would have used for themselves. And it was so difficult for them to be able to see what a single definition might be that could link together someone like Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, through to someone like Helen Frankenthaler because it felt like their experiments in terms of colour, and form and idea and material were so divergent.

What do these words mean? We have no aesthetic definition of what is happening here. It was designed as a phrase to suggest something of the kind of emotion and expression that was going on, and within that there’s a kind of suggestion that this relates to German Expressionism, to some of those European movements. But it was also the first moment that American artists were really working in a fully abstract, modernist vein.

But we can see some points of connection: there was a very strong interest in ideas of the inner self and how that inner space might be expressed within a canvas. So, rather than looking to the outside world, they were looking to an interior landscape.

One of the things we have come to associate with Abstract Expressionism is the idea of what’s called a ‘signature image’. So, we might think of the floating fields of colour in Mark Rothko, of the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, of Franz Kline’s slashed black monochromatic mark-making. Each of these is an image that seems to us to be instantly recognisable.

Lee Krasner, by comparison, worked through many different styles and she was very clear about the fact that she considered it to be fundamentally inauthentic that you could have any one image that would express everything that she was as a woman, and as an artist. So, she railed against this idea. She said ‘the fixed image terrifies me’ because she felt it was if you had been psychologically frozen. Humans are endlessly evolving, and she wanted to reflect that in her work. But it was a very brave stance to take at the time because it was not the reigning fashion.

One of the other terms sometimes used to define Abstract Expressionism is ‘Action Painting’. One of the core ideas is that the picture is the ‘main event’. The canvas is an arena in which the artist acts. And I think we do see that within Krasner’s work, so from the very beginning she refuses to ever do any preparatory studies – so we have no works on paper in which she’s sketching out a design for a large-scale abstract painting. When she’s working, she confronts an empty canvas and she asks herself what she is to do with it. She’s there, and she’s present and she’s live and she’s trying to capture something of her experience of that time, whichever medium she’s working with at that moment. And I think Krasner is an interesting example where she moved through these different cycles and at different moments, we see her playing with different aspects of these ideas. So we might think of Abstract Expressionist collage, or we might think of the more gestural painting, or we might think of the ‘hard edge’ painting. And Krasner’s very funny – she says we can talk ad infinitum about these very formal questions but eventually they get boring, because the real question is when the inner aspects and the outer aspects of a human interlock. That’s what she’s trying to achieve with a painting – it’s actually something quite transcendent. Regardless of her medium, or her formal techniques, which vary dramatically across her career, she’s always trying to get at that.

With thanks to

Barbican Centre
The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York

 

Filmed on the occasion of Lee Krasner: Living Colour
Barbican Art Gallery, 30 May – 1 September 2019

 

Archive

Getty Images
Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Music

Audio Network

 

Credits

 Abstract Expressionist painter Lee Krasner at work, 1981
Ernst Haas / Getty Images

 

Lee Krasner at work, 1981
Ernst Haas / Getty Images

 

Untitled (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1946
Collection of Bobbi and Walter Zifkin
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Floor of Jackson Pollock’s Studio, 1991
Susan Wood / Getty Images

 

Blue Level (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1955
Private Collection
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Siren
Lee Krasner, 1966
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

In Pollock’s Studio, 1991
Susan Wood / Getty Images

 

The Harlem Hep Cats dance the jive and the jitterbug at the Harvest Moon Ball at Madison Square Garden, 1941
BBC Editorial / Getty Images

 

Mosaic Table (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1947
Private Collection
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation
Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

 

Abstract No. 2 (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1947
IVAM Centre, Spain
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Jazz musicians playing, 1946
The March of Time / Getty Images

 

WS POV Traffic on Broadway at night
Warner Bros. Studios / Getty Images

 

Art Tatum playing piano, 1943
The March of Time / Getty Images

 

Bald Eagle (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1955
Collection of Audrey Irmas, Los Angeles
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Combat
Lee Krasner, 1965
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton bequest, 1992
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Lee Krasner
Photographer unknown, c.1938

 

Paint tins in Pollock’s Studio, 1991
Susan Wood / Getty Images

 

Mister Blue (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1966
Collection of Ron Delsener
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Through Blue (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1963
Private Collection, New York City
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Another Storm (background artwork)
Lee Krasner, 1963
Private Collection
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

42nd Street and Broadway, 1948
Silverwell Films / Getty Images

 

1940s high angle busy Times Square with billboards
Petrified Films / Getty Images

 

B/W rear car point of view past theatres in NYC
Petrified Films / Getty Images

 

Lee Krasner in her studio in the barn, Springs
Photograph by Hans Namuth, 1962
Lee Krasner Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

 

De Kooning Painting, 1967
Ben Van Meerondonk / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Jackson Pollock Dribbling Paint, 1949
Martha Holmes / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

 

Mark Rothko, 1961
Kate Rothko / Apic / Getty Images

 

Helen Frankenthaler, Artist at Work, 1969
Ernst Haas / Getty Images

 

Helen Frankenthaler, 1969
Ernst Haas / Getty Images

 

Curving Bay
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, ca. 1914
© Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Picture with Three Spots, No. 196
Wassily Kandinsky, 1914
© Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Painter Jackson Pollock working in his Long Island studio, 1949
Martha Holmes / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

 

Willem De Kooning, Artist looking at Painting
Tony Vaccaro / Getty Images

 

Contact sheet of artist Jackson Pollock dribbling sand, 1949
Martha Holmes / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

 

Franz Kline, 1954
Fritz Goro / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

 

Icarus (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1964
Thomson Family Collection, New York
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Kufic (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1965
Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Composition (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1949
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Gift of the Aaron E. Norman Fund Inc., 1959, 1959-31-1
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Untitled
Lee Krasner, 1946
Collection of Bobbi and Walter Zifkin
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Olympic
Lee Krasner, 1974
Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Abstract No. 2 (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1947
IVAM Centre, Spain
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Portrait in Green (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1969
Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Through Blue (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1963
Private Collection, New York City
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Palingenesis (details)
Lee Krasner, 1971
Pollock-Krasner Foundation
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Contact sheet of artist Jackson Pollock dribbling sand, 1949 (details)
Martha Holmes / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

 

Happy Lady (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1963
Collection of the Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan;
Purchased with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts Museum Purchase Grant and the Samuel and Alma Catsman Foundation, 1978.59
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner at work
Ernst Haas / Getty Images

 

Polar Stampede (detail)
Lee Krasner, 1960
The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Blue Level
Lee Krasner, 1955
Private Collection
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Combat
Lee Krasner, 1965
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton bequest, 1992
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Palingenesis
Lee Krasner, 1971
Pollock-Krasner Foundation
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

 

Portrait of Lee Krasner, 1955
Fred W. McDarrah / Getty Images

 

Lee Krasner, Springs, NY
Photograph by Irving Penn, 1972
© The Irving Penn Foundation

Lee Krasner: Living Colour’, Barbican Art Gallery, 30 May – 1 September 2019

Gothic Landscape, Lee Krasner’, Art UK

Abstract Expressionism’, MoMA Learning

Molly Tresadern, ‘The Women artists obscured by their husbands’, Art UK, 14 November 2017

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