What is the difference between abstract art and abstract expressionism?

To understand the differences between abstract art and abstract expressionism, we must first define them.

Abstract art is work that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of visual reality and instead utilises colours, forms, shapes and gestural marks to create this effect.

Meanwhile, abstract expressionism is a term applied to newer forms of abstract art developed by American painters such as Pollock and Rothko after World War II.

These works are characterised by gestural marks or brush strokes that appear unique and spontaneous.

Abstract art

Abstract art was seen as early as the 12th century.

In it’s modern day context, abstract art first was popularised towards the end of the 19th century when artists felt a need to create something that represented the fundamental changes taking place in technology, science and philosophy at the time.

Prior to this, they used more traditional painting methods which centred on realism.

Artwork was required to be true to life with realistic perspectives, shading and other techniques to create the most historically accurate and lifelike scene.

Abstraction itself indicates a withdrawal or separation from reality.

Within the context of art, abstraction allows objects, figures and landscapes to be simplified or arranged in a specific way to abstract visual reality.

This can be achieved using forms such as gestural marks, lines and geometric shapes which have no source of reference in visual reality.

Abstract art of this kind is often referred to as pure abstraction, but abstract is a term that is used to describe many types of ‘abstract’ art and it is not always clear what is ‘pure’.

Some artists would characterise pure artwork as having a moral dimension that other work does not exhibit.

These abstract works represent order, simplicity, purity, and spirituality – virtues not to be confused with the work of colour field painters within the abstract expressionist movement.

Abstract art is now often characterised as ‘modern art’ and has developed extreme popularity in contemporary interior design projects, due to its versatility and ability to appeal to many viewers, each often seeing something different within the artwork.

Throughout the years, there have been many explanations offered for the growing popularity of abstract art in the 21st century, one of which is that these works are reflective of the growing abstractions in our modern-day life.

Towards the latter half of the 20th century, the art world has seen abstract art in its purest form develop through digital art, geometric abstraction, minimalism, abstract expressionism and more.

Abstract expressionism

The term Abstract Expressionism was coined from a desire for artists to make art that, although is inherently abstract, could also be expressive and emotional.

The artists who were a key part of this movement in New York during the 1940’s were inspired by surrealist belief that art should come from the unconscious mind, and therefore required creating work without conscious thought.

There are two different types of abstract expressionist art; action painting and colour field painting. Action painters would ‘attack’ their canvases with expressive brush strokes, while colour field painters choose to fill their canvases with large areas of one colour.

Jackson Pollock was one of the key artists that led the work of the action painters, working spontaneously and in an unconscious manner.

Often the work used large brushes to improvise bold gestural marks across the canvas.

Jackson Pollock Painting

There are many artists that are noted within this type of abstract expressionism, but arguably Pollock was the most famous because of how he placed a canvas on the ground and danced around it with paint.

Paint would fly from his brush or stick onto the canvas in an unpredictable and unconscious manner, allowing the artist to truly embrace surrealist automatism.

Conversely, the Colour Field Painters were led by the likes to Rothko who demonstrated an unwavering interest in religion and myth.

Their creations were simpler, and used large areas of single, flat colour in an attempt to evoke a more meditational and contemplative response from the viewer instead of an emotional response.

Arguably, abstract expressionism is a movement that was simply a natural progression of abstract art that was born out of post-war America. The key difference between the two is that abstract expressionism does not necessarily or deliberately abandon all elements which are sourced from external visual reality, but it does use abstraction to evoke an emotional response.

Conversely, the inherent nature of abstract art means that there is no accurate figural or representational elements to be depicted.

Instead, the pure abstraction seeks to generate an almost instinctive emotional response from each viewer; one that is personal to each individual.

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