If anybody knows what Abstract Expressionism is then it is clearly Clement Greenberg, the guru and godfather of this movement. In the 1940s Greenberg began bringing together American paintings of quite different styles under this term. In 1962 he looked back and stated:
"If the label ‘Abstract Expressionism' means anything it means painterliness: loose, rapid handling, or the look of it; masses that blotted or fused instead of shapes that stayed distinct; large and conspicuous rhythms; broken color; uneven densities or saturations of paint, exhibited brush, knife or finger marks - in short, a constellation of qualities like those defined by Wölfflin when he extracted his notion of Malerische from Baroque art."
Formal qualities such as "painterly" (as opposed to "linear") and "abstract" (as opposed to "figurative") can be read from this definition, which spell the dominion of colour and rhythm. But the definition is as vague as the group of works it attempts to encompass. What has one of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings to do with a colour field painting by Barnett Newman? What links the wild brushstrokes of Willem De Kooning with the meditative surfaces of Mark Rothko? What it is, in fact, is the attempt to let the artistic means - the paint and the canvas - express themselves, and not to place them in the service of some overriding statement or content. But apart from that, not much.
Be that as it may, there was a desire among modernist critics and collectors to place American artists in one pot, to grasp them with the term Abstract Expressionism or even the New York School, and thus stamp them with a brand name. These efforts, according to Serge Guilbault in his 1983 book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, was also politically motivated. Thanks to abstract art, the United States managed to slip into a lead role on the cultural stage and thus outstrip Europe, which is to say: Paris.
Jackson Pollock, Black and White No. 15, 1951, gloss enamel paint on canvas, 142,2 x 167,7 cm, Museum Ludwig 1976, acquired with the support of the State of NRW description of the image
The fact that they succeeded was an outcome of the Second World War. Artists like Max Ernst, Max Beckmann, Marcel Duchamp and Hans Hofmann had fled from the Nazis to America, bringing with them the ideas and experiences of the European avant-garde.
While abstraction in post-war Europe - such as the Informel of Germany and France - was a comfortable alternative to a political examination of recent occurrences, Abstract Expressionism allowed the enlightened Americans to visualise their underlying values. The free abstract brushstroke stood for the free American citizen, and the individual differences in style among the artists for the individual possibilities for development that the American Way offered its people. But the world of commerce run by the Rockefellers, Whitneys and Guggenheims saw this art not only as the radical opposite to Socialist Realism of the Russian school, but also as a lucrative investment. The mighty art magnates wanted, according to Fred Orton, an American art of the most modern standards, along the lines of the European model, and thus were rarely bothered by the leftist leanings of their protégéed artists.
Even if it is hard to tie Abstract Expressionism down to any one concept, an attempt will now be made to present the categories with which it is most frequently associated and its chief representatives.
In 1952 American critic Harold Rosenberg came up with the term "action painting" in an article he wrote on Jackson Pollock. He was describing the dripping technique which Pollock used to get the paint on to the canvas. The latter was rolled-out over the floor and the paint applied directly, without any actual brush contact. The artist moved around the canvas with brush and paint pot and using broad sweeping movements, allowed the paint to find its own place. The act of painting, the artist's movements, became an intrinsic part of the work. Alongside Pollock, the artists Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell were all to begin painting in this gestural manner.
In strong contrast to Action Painting came the emphatic calm of the colour field painting explored by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly. Using fields of pure colour, these artists took abstraction to the limits. The paint alone - or even its absence - made up these often large-scale paintings. They were to be celebrated, their effect tested and carefully employed. Rothko and Newman wanted in their quite different ways to trigger an emotional experience in the viewer. In the paintings of Kelly and Stella, the colour acquires power over the form, in those of Ad Reinhardt it could yield unexpected variations.
Clement Greenberg coined the phrase "Painterly Abstraction" for the works by all these artists, while "Post Painterly Abstraction" was used for the works of the next generation: Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.
Lee Krasner, Vernal Yellow, 1980, oil, collage on canvas, 150 x 178, Ludwig Collection description of the image
Picking up on the abstract artists of the 1950s, these artists pushed further with their colour studies, in which they experimented with ways of applying the paint: it was put on the unprimed canvas in such a manner that the brush or finger marks remained invisible - so that the artist disappeared behind the canvas.
One artist who seems to escape these categories, because she could be assigned to several of them is Lee Krasner. Placed by the critics in the shadow of her famous husband, "Mrs. Jackson Pollock" had a difficult time finding her own style. She tried to avoid loading her works with any statements that had female connotations, which would have played into her critics' hands. Some of her works have a formal similarity to Pollock's, while others point to European abstraction or colour field painting. Krasner was rarely taken seriously while Pollock was alive. And yet she was to hold her own as a woman among the fraternity of male Abstract Expressionists.