A few years ago, Andy and I completed a course at the University of Denver on post-World War II American art. The course was taught by Dean Sobel, Director of the Clyfford Still Museum and recognized authority on the art of the 20th century.

In the course we explored the major movements and artists of the post-1945 period, including Abstract Expressionism, Happenings, Pop Art, New Realism, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Earth Art, Body Art, Conceptualism, Neo-Expressionism and other smaller manifestations. The Abstract Expressionism genre, which flowered in the 1940s and 1950s in New York, was of particular interest to me.

The Second World War brought an end to the long succession of modern European art movements that began with Impressionism in the 1870s. The American Abstract Expressionists, led by Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, created a groundbreaking approach to art-making that is still felt today.

After the War, artists were interested in finding general truths in the unconscious mind that would piece society back together. In the United States, Abstract Expressionists flouted traditional painting techniques in an effort to find and express common human ground. They usually worked on large canvases and emphasized the sensuousness of paint. Abstract Expressionists can broadly be divided into two groups. The Action painters and the Color Field painters.

Action Painters
Action painters, a term coined by the critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952, include Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline. Their paintings are full of drama, with the paint applied urgently and passionately.

In Action painting, the “act” of painting becomes the content of the work, the image reflects the raw emotions held by the artist while creating it. Action painters poured, dripped, and spattered paint on to the canvas. Hans Hoffman was among the first to do this, but Pollock took the technique to its logical conclusion. He abandoned the restrictions of brushes and upright easels to create images that he described as “energy and motion made visible.” These pictures, full of restlessness and flux, with no one part of the picture more important than another, were said to be “all-over” in style.

Color Field Painters
The Color Field painters, championed by critic Clement Greenberg, include Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. Their paintings are quieter and emphasize the emotional force of color.

Color Field painting was contemplative and carefully constructed. The works consist of large expanses of color, often without strong contrasts of tone or obvious focal points. Many Color Field paintings were intended to create transcendental feelings of awe and wonder. Newman said his art was “religious” and concerned with the “sublime.” Rothko said his work was about “the basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” The huge size of many of these paintings does seem to overwhelm the viewer, inducing a feeling of isolation in a limitless world.

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