What Makes a Painting Abstract Expressionism?

Indulge 36x60" original abstract painting


Abstract expressionism began as an artistic movement in the mid 20th century, based on the works of famous American painters Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. It’s one of the artistic styles that is so beloved and popular today, with people shelling out thousands of dollars to buy an artist’s abstract expressionist work to collect or display in their households or workplaces.

Paintings of this nature are very easy to identify, characterized by free brush strokes and random patterns. It’s a form of emotional, mental, and physical expression, allowing the artist to unleash their creativity and create a spontaneous image that speaks for itself.


Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism

Some artists are perfectionists, aiming for fine lines, symmetrical patterns, complementary colors, etc. in their work. But others are more free-spirited, allowing their minds and hands to freely touch the canvas and create meaningful art almost unconsciously.

The latter can be defined as abstract expressionists, artists who are inspired by surrealist ideas of art that rely on unconsciousness, spontaneity, and automatism. Abstract expressionism can be characterized by three main ideas: free self-expression, viewer interpretation, and the chaos of the unconscious.


Nature of the Mind abstract painting
Nature of the Mind


Free Self-Expression

Paintings that result from self-expression, strong emotions, universal themes, and the surrealist mindset are the epitomes of the abstract expressionism movement (read more about why surrealism is so important). Coming to popularity after World War II, many artists used this painting style to express and communicate feelings of post-war trauma and anxiety.

Most abstract expressionists are influenced by leftist politics in the 1930s, giving value to art that stems from personal experience and is expressive of individual freedom, mood, and emotions.


Monetary Standard abstract painting
Monetary Standard


Meaning is in the Eye of the Beholder

Although the artist creates these masterpieces pouring out all their emotions and thoughts, artists using this painting style believe that the viewer interprets the meaning of each artwork.

In abstract expressionism, the medium speaks for itself and can be interpreted in various unique ways depending on the eyes that are looking at them. This stems from the Expression Theory promulgated by Leo Tolstoy, the artist recognized as the father of abstract expression. He believed that art has the capacity to elicit emotions in the viewer, which is the idea behind the chaotic and expressive character of abstract expressionism paintings.


Red Matter abstract painting
Red Matter


The Chaos of the Unconscious

The abstract expressionism movement is heavily influenced by surrealist principles, mainly that art comes from the unconscious mind and dreams. “Surrealist” is a term coined by a French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, to suggest something that happens beyond reality. French artist André Breton further defined surrealism as psychic automatism where an individual can express their thoughts with the absence of control, reason, and aesthetic or moral preoccupation. (See Wild Aesthetic painting by Robert Lyn Nelson)

The art movement in and of itself reflects the beautiful challenge and battle of striking the balance between self-expression and the chaos of the unconscious. The surrealist mindset embraces unconventionality, being a form of revolution that challenges norms and advocates for individual freedom.

This is the nature of abstract expressionism — an artist purely relying on the chaos of his thoughts, dreams, psychological tensions, and emotions and allowing these to lead his hand through the canvas.


Synthesis of Love abstract painting
Synthesis of Love


Abstract Expressionism: Freedom in Art

The abstract expressionism art form is considered the most prominent from its era up to today. It’s preferred by free-spirited artists and viewers who see beauty in chaos and value spontaneity and freedom. The movement brings together a diverse range of people — each with different experiences, emotions, techniques, and intentions.

Whether a painting is created through improvisatory gestural marks, meditative strokes, or vigorous effects, the abstract expressionism style cherishes the chaos of the unconscious and finds its own meaning and interpretation from the eyes of the beholder.

Click to view more abstract expressionist works by Robert Lyn Nelson

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