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Developments in Abstract Art

In the second half of the twentieth century abstract art was explored further in very different ways, trends and schools. We give a short overview of these developments.

Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism is a form of abstract art that evolved in the United States in the 1940s. Alfred H. Barr already called compositions of Wassily Kandinsky abstract expressionism in 1929; the name may have been given first by the American critic Richard Coates, then popularised by Clement Greenberg. New York artists mainly founded it. It reached its apogee in the 1950s. It was much influenced by Hans Hoffmann’s art school in New York.
Abstract Expressionism was a reaction on Cubism and Surrealism. Abstract Expressionism proposed the liberation of the spirit, a heightened consciousness of the state of society. The art drew attention on the isolation of humans in modern society and on the transitoriness and instability of modern relations. Abstract Expressionism was a flight from the realities of everyday life. Liberation meant soft lines, obscure shapes, and automatism in creation.
American Abstract Expressionism, also called ‘Action Painting’ in its first phases, made works painted on large canvases in powerful strokes. Action painting was a name given more to a technique than to a style of painting. The word emphasised that the action of painting, the fluent or other movements of the painter determined the result. Mostly Jackson Pollock and followers used this technique. Paint was sometimes thrown or dripped on the canvas (Jackson Pollock). The creativity of the artist had to come from the subconscience, so that the technique was considered as important as the result. Thus emphasis was for some artists on the drip and splatter techniques of throwing paint on the panels. This led to the creation of very rhythmic and of course abstract compositions. Not all work was totally abstract however.
Painters of this style were Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Willem De Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Rothko, Clifford Still, William Baziotes, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Richard Pounette Dark, and Arshile Gorky.

European Post-war Abstraction

By this name we call the European artists that worked right after World War II. These painters were developing new styles in abstraction and they were mainly in search for new trends. They worked more on expression in colours than using strict geometric forms, and in that they resemble the American Abstract Expressionists. These painters were Wols (Otto Wolfgang Schulze), Jean Fautré, Jean Dubuffet, Nicolas de Staël, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Antoni Tàpies and Alberto Burri. The painters evolved to a later evolution called ‘Art Informel’.

Crude Art

The ‘Compagnie de l’Art Brut’ was founded in Paris in 1948, initially to manage a collection of works gathered at the Galerie Drouin. Founding members were Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) and Michel Tapié (1909-1987). Jean Dubuffet gave the name ‘Art Brut’ to objects produced by children, the naïve and primitive, the psychotic, untouched by the artistic culture. Dubuffet exhibited these works first in the Galerie Drouin.

Colourfield Painting

The painters of this movement showed large areas of colours, usually in dark tones but in contrasting hues. Colourfield painting was a late development of abstract expressionism and some of the painters of this movement are sometimes indicated by the name of ‘colour painting’. Mark Rothko, Clifford Still and Barnett Newman are sometimes indicated by this style.

Post-Painterly Abstraction

Post-Painterly Abstraction was a reaction to abstract expressionism in that its painters reacted against some of the underlying mysticism viewed in Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman’s pictures. It was a United States movement. The American critic Clement Greenberg gave this name in 1964; it was also the title of an exhibition held that year by Greenberg in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The artists used colour for its optical effects alone. The painters applied vivid, clear colours, brought in thin layers on the canvas so that the texture of underlying medium was still perceived. They often used acrylic paints and stained or soaked the canvas with this instead of bringing thick layers of oil paint in their pictures. This was a very formalist art that appealed more to the intellect than to the evocation of emotions as the preceding Abstract Expressionism. Artists were Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Richard Diebenkorn.

Informal Art

Informal Art was an art form defined in France and called ‘Art Informel’. ‘Informel’ in French should be read and understood in the sense of being ‘without form’. It was founded in the late 1940s. These artists tried to find a new way to build images without representing recognisable and figurative forms. They discovered this new art by improvisation. The French critic Michel Tapié may have used the term ‘art informel’ from around 1951. Paris was the centre of the movement that contained both figurative and abstract artists in a great variety of works. Informal Art emphasised colours as its artists evolved from Post-War Abstraction of France. Like the American Abstract Expressionists the artists emphasised the gesture of painting. The artists reacted on the logical, calculated pictures of the geometric abstract artists and looked at the Surrealist images to express inner emotions in new ways. Paint could be deposited in blots on the canvas. Blots are called in French ‘des taches’, so the movement was also called ‘Tachism’. A few painters even took up calligraphy in this style.
Painters of this style were Alberto Burri, Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Nicolas De Staël, and Antoni Tàpies.


Minimalism was a trend in painting and mostly even in sculpture that developed primarily in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. It may be considered as a sub movement of Post-Painterly Abstraction, and is more a way of painting applied in various movements than a categorisation in time and schools of artists. The American philosopher Richard Wollheim used the term since 1965.
Minimalist art was art reduced to the minimum in pure abstract representation. Minimalist art delivered forms devoid of all expression. Minimalists worked on geometrical figures, on variations of simple shapes. Art was a form by which the mind could impose the rational order on things. For Minimalists art was not self-expression. Their art was often monochrome, assembled from a close repetition of colour surfaces. It was predominantly horizontal or vertical, and it showed repetitive, very simple geometrical patterns without any specific meaning.
Since sharply delineated areas were shown on the panels, this kind of painting is also sometimes called ‘Hard Edge’, although this term is more general and does not necessarily name a particular school or group in art history.
Minimal art was a reaction to the Abstract Expressionism that had dominated North American art in the 1950s. Minimalist painters and sculptors were Don Judd, Dan Flavin, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, Carl Andre, Elsworth Kelly, and Frank Stella.

Op Art

This was an abstract art tendency of the 1960s. Op Art’s first international exhibition was held in 1965, in New York, and called the ‘Responsive Eye’ exhibition. Op Art is the abbreviation of ‘optical art’. Op art artists exploited the fallacies of the human eye by provoking special effects in patterns of colours and lines. The patterns exploited optical illusions. Op Art provoked illusory images and sensations in the spectator. The patterns sometimes could create impressions of movement. Op Art was a very formal abstract art. A group that was fascinated by the optical effects of light was also the German group centred on Düsseldorf and called the ‘Zen’ Group, founded in 1957.
Op Art painters were Bridget Riley, Joseph Albers, Victor Vasarely, and Julian Stanczak. Zen artists were Heinz Mack, Günther Uecker and Otto Piene.


Cobra was the name of a group of European artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, founded in 1948. The group lasted till 1951. Cobra artists proposed the free expression of the subconscience in the visual arts. They used improvisation, thick layers of paint and pure colours in a mostly abstract art. Their work excelled in vitality and power.
Cobra artists were Karel Appel, Christian Dotremont, Asger Jorn and Pierre Alechinsky.

German Expressivity: Spur, Wir, Geflechte

The most important post-war German group of painters was the group ‘Spur’ founded in 1958 in Munich by Lothar Fischer, Heimrad Prem, Helmut Sturm and HP Zimmer. Another member was Gustav Kluge. These artists painted abstract works and were much influenced by Asger Jorn of Cobra. They opposed the consumer society and made abstract paintings in mostly violent colours and strokes. In 1959 another group was founded in Munich, the group ‘Wir’, around Hans-Matthäus Bachmeyer. In 1965 Spur and Wir merged into the group ‘Geflechte’, which was disbanded in 1967. In 1965 also the ‘Kollektiv Herzogstrasse’ of expressive figuration was formed, a group that lasted until 1982.

Art and Language

This was a movement of abstract art founded in 1968 by four English artists: Terry Atkinson (b. 1939), Michael Baldwin (b. 1945), David Bainbridge and Harold Hurrell. Their journal was published in Coventry. Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden (b.1944) signed paintings with the name ‘Art&Language’. Art and Language proposed theoretical models and created with these a new conceptual art. Art&Language was part of the larger art movement called ‘Conceptual Art’, whose main manifestations were however in sculpture.

Abstract developments in general

Mostly very clear lines were used in these abstract developments. Even in Abstract Expressionism and in Cobra, movements that emphasised very much colour areas or the drip technique, lines remained important.

In certain newer abstract art forms such as Minimalism, the attention for form and composition was dominant. In most developments however form was completely free. This did not mean that form was chaotic or left to chance. Even in Abstract Expressionism and stronger in all other forms of new abstract art, great attention was given to balance, harmony, contrast and the emotions induced by strict form. Minimalism and Op Art were very formalistic art forms, the other were less so.

All these art forms gave much attention to colour. All colour hues could be used, contrasting or not. The psychological effects of colour were much exploited by the Abstract Expressionists.

These tendencies were abstract art, so subject matter lacked.

Common in the various abstract art forms was lack of representation of objects, lack of subject matter. Volume and space were not emphasised in the majority of the movements. Optical Art however exploited also very many spatial illusions, without using the traditional means of perspective.

The newer developments in abstract art exploited the myriad, endless possible combination of abstract forms and patterns thereof. This art was a further evolution of the same principle that the first abstract painters had pioneered.

Autumn Rhythm

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). The Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York. 1950.

The paintings that I present in this chapter date all from after the Second World War but most of its painters were at a mature age right after the war. These men stood still with both feet in the tradition of the early abstracts and even in the tradition of figurative painting of the previous centuries. All developed a new and particular vision of abstract art and each of them was an original artist. Although their art is surprising, for many of these painters the references and links with the past were stronger than one might suspect at first view.

Of all the artists we present here Jackson Pollock was the most iconoclastic. He started to paint in a figurative fashion and he was inclined to symbolism. But just after World War II he turned to abstract painting. He invented a peculiar technique that has been called ‘action painting’ since. Pollock placed his canvases on the ground instead of putting it on an easel. Then he simply threw and dripped paint on the canvas. He had sometimes to walk over the linen. Pollock would work further on the painting at some places with sticks or knives. He would put thick layers of paint in other places. He generally used soft, harmonious colours. This was light brown as background in ‘Autumn Rhythm’ and for the rest he put white and black splashes of paint on the canvas. His canvases were very large and he could leave that space as a picture or choose the part he liked best and cut that out of the larger canvas. He sometimes simply cut the canvas in two and framed both parts as separate pictures.

‘Autumn Rhythm’ dates from 1950. By now Pollock’s technique was mature and completely tried out. He had reached assurance and mastered his technique fully. The painting was made by throwing long streams of paint over the canvas. Pollock did this in a rhythmical fashion, in the same rhythmical movements of arms and hands so that a dynamic wave seems to be created over the canvas that consists of almost repetitive patterns of lines and dots. By throwing the paint the brushes dripped. The drips fell also in the middle of the picture but disappeared there under the streaks of paint. The drips remained visible towards the borders of the frame and they formed there a kind of natural ending of the lines. The result was not at all a random picture, created purely by chance. The picture has a feeling of having been wanted to be the way it is, in one repeating movement of patterns of lines and dots.

Pollock said that the splashes of paint and the picture as a whole were the result of an inner need. The technique was his way of expression and the result of a precise balancing of the patterns and painted zones. A painting like ‘Autumn Rhythm’ also contains effects of depth and hence of three-dimensional space. Pollock first painted a uniform light yellow-brown background. Then he dripped white paint on that ground. He worked on that paint. Then he put a layer of black lines and dots. These several successive layers create a surprising feeling of depth.

Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings were not so violent anymore as some of his earlier paintings, which showed harshly contrasting colours. It seems as if Pollock’s creative energy was channelled by his very active way of working to a calmness of mind that was visible in his painting. The waves and patterns became elegant and still. The patterns were not unlike the complex patterns of branches of bushes, so had some reminiscence to natural patterns. Therefore Pollock’s paintings appeal to viewers in a natural and immediate manner, appealing to inner knowledge and recognition.

Richard P. Taylor examined Jackson Pollock’s paintings to determine their degree of complexity. Taylor and two colleagues with computer expertise, Adam Micolich and David Jonas, used computers and scanning techniques (Fractal Analysis of Pollock’s Drip paintings – R. P. Taylor, A. P. Micolich and D. Jonas in Nature Vol. 339, page 422, June 3 1999). They separated Pollock’s paintings into their colour patterns and they looked at how patterns evolved as Pollock added layers of colours. They covered the painting with matrices of equal squares and analysed the patterns by looking and counting which squares were occupied with paint and which were not, at ever finer magnification. Interestingly, they found the pattern to be fractal.

Fractal geometry is a concept developed by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1970s. Mandelbrot studied complexity. ‘Fractal’ means ‘broken’ to indicate the irregular nature of geometric patterns. Fractals have a feature called self-similarity, meaning that the patterns are similar however detailed one looks or describes the generated forms, at whatever magnification. Self-similarity can be mathematically exact, each detail having exactly the same pattern as the whole. The pattern can also statistically repeat however, which happens most in nature. Fractals can be characterised by a number, a parameter, termed ‘dimension’, which is a degree of complexity. This number takes on a value between 1 and 2. The fractal number indicates a kind of ordering within the complexity, a degree of ordering that remains the same at higher levels of detail as at lower levels. An example of a fractal number equal to 1 is a straight line in an area. At fractal 2 the area is entirely filled with paint, evenly coloured. At D=1 the pattern is very simple; complexity rises as the value of D augments to reach D=2.

The fractal value of most of Pollock’s patterns is between D=1.5 and D=1.7. Very early pictures of Pollock had a low D value, whereas Pollock discarded a painting with a very high value of D. He gradually painted pictures with higher fractal value, but remained between the two mentioned values of complexity.

Richard Taylor worked with a psychologist to find that people were most at ease at midrange values of D and that people express preferences for D values between D=1.3 and D=1.5. Pollock’s patterns are at the highest of these values. So Pollock’s patterns are less relaxing than what viewers would normally expect but Jackson Pollock may have reached a degree of complexity that was still tolerable to viewers, yet dense and stimulating enough to heighten the attention of viewers. Although the paintings of Jackson Pollock resemble sheer chaos, there seems to be a self-repeating pattern in the various layers of detail in his paintings which resemble indeed the basic processes of nature. This feature is unique to Pollock; Taylor, Micolich and Jonas found that imitators of Pollock’s style did not expose fractal repetition. The fractality of Pollock’s paintings is a unique feature by which his paintings can be compared to copies or frauds.

Sometimes it’s the Opposite

Pierre Alechinsky (1927 - ). Musée d’Art Moderne – Brussels. 1970.

At the same time as Pollock, a Belgian painter worked also in fluent waves and preferred curved lines and bright colours to strict, straight geometrical forms of the early abstract painters. This was Pierre Alechinsky, born in 1927 of Russian descent. At the end of 1948 three artists with similar ideas on colour and line formed a group called COBRA. The name stood for the towns these artists worked in. Asger Jorn worked in Copenhagen, Pierre Alechinsky in Brussels and Karel Appel in Amsterdam.

Alechinsky painted flowing bands of bright colours, with patterns that sometimes vaguely remind of figurative, organic forms. Pollock splashed relatively narrow bands on the canvas but Alechinsky brought broad undulating waves on his canvas. Like with Pollock these lively patterns appeal at first glance to centres of our mind that vibrate in tune with the rhythms and the colours of the paintings. Alechinsky used thin paint, evenly spread on the surface. He carefully designed friezes around his pictures or in the length of one or more borders of the frame. These delimited the space within which the work of art was created. The result looks like a sophisticated decoration.

In Pierre Alechinsky’s painting the viewer may try to recognise objects or figures but that effort remains mostly vain, as the forms merely remind the viewer of purified basic forms he or she has met in nature. The real forms shown have no clear resemblance to anything real. In Alechinsky’s ‘Sometimes it’s the Opposite’, we find a frieze of organic forms that remind of flowers, of animals and even of parts of the human body. Above the frieze are playful round forms on a green and blue background. The green could represent meadows and the blue a lake. Vaguely a human form can then be thought to plunge into the water, whereas animals and other figures play in the grass. But none of these forms are really recognisable so that they remain only abstract patterns. Alechinsky’s picture dates from 1970, but the painter repeated this kind of depiction endlessly since the beginning of the post-war period. Jackson Pollock created intuitively spontaneity, a certain joy, and a primeval lyric that induce kind emotions in viewers. They refused to be driven by logical intellect, hence their images of undulating bands and lines.

Jackson Pollock and Pierre Alechinsky are both ‘phase 1’ painters. They attract viewers by their lines and colours. They puzzle and surprise by the originality of their work. After the immediate impression, there is not much further to explore and more discovery is also not required on the viewer. The repeating patterns, oscillations, undulations, which also slightly change and modify from area to area challenge immediately the viewer’s feelings and his or her sense of recognition of the patterns. These overwhelm the viewer and the viewer is soon lost in the waves. Then the viewer is caught in and admiration of the whole. Despite all the apparent energy, the repetitions create calm, quiet pictures.

Dark over Brown

Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Musée National d’Art Moderne. Centre Pompidou – Paris. 1963.

The other paintings I present here are developments of abstraction of an altogether different nature. Here the intellect of the artists was definitely at work, if only in the first inspiration, to ordered creation. A work of transition is Mark Rothko’s ‘Dark over Brown’. Rothko only painted coloured rectangles, so one might say that his art was pure and intellectual. But his rectangles are not really well delineated. They have a feeling of texture and of fluidity over them, as their borders are not clear lines but seem to flow into the paint next to them. The rectangles were superfluous concepts for Rothko. We have to see them more as separate spaces that move in slow transition one into the other. Rothko expresses this concept in colours only.

In Mark Rothko’s painting ‘Dark over Brown’ we are looking at a very gloomy, sad picture of dark tones. The middle coloured part only emphasises the more sombre background. This part is caught between two dark brown surfaces. The dark middle is situated as if forced between the two iron heads of an anvil. This effect generates much tension in the picture. The borders of the middle space hang somewhat over the brown ones, as if the space were a soft matter that is squeezed out. Thus, with very frugal means Rothko made a work full of tension, of powers at work that position space to space and whereby these spaces seem to struggle against each other. Rothko arrived at a picture of forces between colours representing separate spaces. There is a silent, dumb, muted tension in the painting and that is also made visible by the fact that the middle part is also somewhat longer than the other areas, as if it were forced out between the other areas. Rothko’s painting has in common with the preceding paintings that it is an expression of emotions and that it was made to create at first sight strong reactions in the viewer.


Barnett Newman (1905-1970). Stedelijk Museum – Amsterdam.1951.

Quite close to Mark Rothko’s style of painting was another North-American artist, Barnett Newman. Less than Rothko’s art however, his paintings seem to be based on the expression of emotions. The painting ‘Cathedra’ consists of a uniformly painted blue frame in which no gradations of hues disturb the surface. One single vertical line, a small vertical lathe, divides the blue area. The line has a different colour. It is drawn in white and in bright tone. Newman’s series is sometimes called ‘zip painting’ and Newman himself used that term to indicate the vertical lathes. Newman made many paintings in which vertical, coloured lines separate other coloured fields

The zips divide the surface into separate fields that can be independently viewed. Many conjectures exist on the meaning of the lines and the divided planes. The zip might represent a repetition of the vertical borders of the frame, thus forming pictures within pictures. Each field could be a painting by itself so that the zips of the overall painting form other individual paintings. The zips might represent an opening into a space that lies behind the blue space of the painting as a whole; thus they open voids into the space of the picture. The viewer experiences a sense of the infinity that lies behind each painting. What was the intention of the painter in the first place: was it to create the zip or was it to create the blue fields? What was actually painted: the separate blue fields separated by the zip, or one blue rectangle and the white zip painted on top? The zips are important because they separate the space of the canvas into parts, so they create the fields of the painting. But one can also state that the zips are not important, because what are important are the various fields that needed to be created by the painter. The zips exist only by the grace of the different blue rectangles that are juxtaposed. Barnett Newman wrote in 1962 about the importance of the sense for space in his abstract pictures as follows, ‘I don’t manipulate or play with space. I declare it. It is by my declaration that my paintings become full. All of my paintings have a top and a bottom. They are never divided; no are they confined or restricted; nor do they jump out of their size. Since childhood I have always been aware of space as a space-dome.’ And also, ‘Anyone standing in front of my paintings must feel the vertical domelike vaults encompass him to awaken an awareness of his being alive in the sensation of complete space.’ G86.

Newman sometimes gave titles from Christian religion to pictures of his series, in order to call mystical images to the mind of the viewers. His zip paintings seem to invite more mystical feelings than Mark Rothko’s do. Newman’s series of paintings hanging one next to the other induce to all viewers feelings of eternity and of transcendence, of the attraction and the fear of man confronted with the immense void of the universe. Newman himself once said that his paintings have more to do with the notion of time than with the notion of space. Barnett Newman’s paintings however are more cold, distant, non-committing than Mark Rothko’s work of which the silent passion is felt by viewers almost as being a reproach, and a muted complaint.

Study to Homage to the Square: Blue Depth

Josef Albers (1888-1976). Modern Art Collection of the Gemeentemuseum – The Hague. 1961.

Another painter who made paintings based on rectangles and squares was Josef Albers. Albers was a German of origin but he immigrated to the United States and taught much there. He made a series of paintings called ‘Homage to the Square’, which were as many studies and experiments in effects of colours. The ‘Homage to the Square’ pictures of Albers can be used to make other painters and viewers feel the relative psychological value of warmth, coldness, closeness or distance of colours. It is one of the legacies of the teacher Josef Albers to his students of colour effects.

In the painting ‘Blue Depth’ a bright, warm, red square forms the background. Successive squares are placed above this background so that the viewer sees a succession of borders with a blue square in the middle. Actually, there is only one square in the painting but for the frame itself, and that is the centre blue part. But the viewer sees more than the borders and supposes that successive squares have been painted one on top of the other. The viewer at one time sees the squares superimposed in his mind.

Red is a very warm colour that comes out to the viewer, and seeks closeness to the viewer. Blue generates a feeling of distance. Therefore the viewer sees an optical effect of deepening space, as if the blue square is situated further behind than the largest red border. The succession of borders of ever-colder colours enhances this effect. Moreover the borders are larger at the top of the painting than at the bottom. This is an effect a viewer would experience when he or she enters a high room painted in the colours of the painting. The viewer then also would see the bands larger at the top and lower beneath. This creates a strong feeling of perspective in the viewer, and thus of space and depth.

This is of course all a very intellectual, logical explanation of an optical phenomenon. Albers was not expressing particular emotions in his paintings. We see only an interesting optical effect and that effect is the whole goal of the picture. Only Albers however emphasised as the first artist so obviously the optical effects of colours and therefore a viewer can be interested in his work. Albers’ work is entirely devoid of feelings and does not arouse particular feelings in viewers. His work is hence very different from Pollock and Rothko’s work. The work of Albers is aimed at surprise, at the pure demonstration of optical effects.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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