“It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own techniques.” – Jackson Pollock
Abstract Expressionism was an American painting movement that flourished in the 1940s and ‘50s. More than sixty years have passed since the critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker in 1946, first used the term “Abstract Expressionism” to describe the richly coloured canvases of Hans Hofmann. Over the years, the name has come to designate the paintings and sculpture of artists as different as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and David Smith.
As you experience the artworks in the show, you will see there is no one style that they all share. The range goes from work that is incredibly gestural, aggressive and high- energy to work that is very silent and contemplative. Although the work of each Abstract Expressionist artist was highly individualistic and distinct, they all shared a common sense of purpose — to create a new beginning for art.
This was a generation of artists who had just come through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and who had witnessed the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb. Instead of falling into despair, they sought to invent a new language of art, which by extension would imply a new culture, a new civilization and a new beginning for humankind in general.
Abstract painting was not new, but large–scale abstraction was the breakthrough of this group — artmaking was no longer confined to the canvas on an easel. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler unrolled their canvases on the floor and used their entire bodies to paint. Painting became choreography. The scale of the works the Abstract Expressionists produced literally declared the artists’ belief that what they were doing was big. They used the canvas as “an arena in which to act” rather than as a place to produce an object. In his famous 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters,” art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Following the pioneering “drip” paintings of Jackson Pollock, artists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman developed their own distinct visual vocabularies. Where Pollock and de Kooning used agitated gestures in paint to convey the urgency of their vision, Rothko and Newman relied upon fields of colour to envelop sight and transport the viewer to new realms of emotion and perception.
Visitors to this exhibition will come face-to-face with exhilarating artworks that changed the course of modern art. The diverse works on view in Abstract Expressionist New York display the intense originality of a diverse group of artists, including painters Helen Frankenthaler, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Robert Motherwell; photographers Robert Frank and Harry Callahan; and sculptors Louise Bourgeois, David and Isamu Noguchi. This exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to experience firsthand the creative ingenuity that made New York the centre of the art world.
Complete Exhibition Text
Download complete text of the exhibition (PDF, 1.9MB) before you visit to read on your smart phone or tablet while in the exhibition. Or enjoy it afterwards in the comfort of your own home.
Ab Ex Family Activity Guide
A great way for families to work together to experience this exhibition, this family activity guide offers activities, questions for guided looking and suggestions for exploration. Download the Ab Ex Family Activity Guide (PDF, 76.4MB) prior to your visit or pick one up on your way into the show.
- AGO Unveils One of the World’s Largest Public Collections of Motherwell Drawings (June 24, 2011)
- AGO Launches AbEx with Two Show-Stopping Events (May 11, 2011)
- Tickets to AbEx On Sale April 30 at 10 am at the AGO (April 20, 2011)
- AGO to Present Masterworks by Pollock, Rothko, and Others from The Museum of Modern Art (December 16, 2010)