How to describe Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism painting holds the distinction of being the first original American art movement to gain worldwide acclaim. Its critical and popular reception following World War II shifted the center of the global art world from Paris to New York, a distinction the Big Apple has yet to relinquish.

Abstract Expressionism is also the style your in-laws are most likely to describe as “something a grade-schooler could do.” One look at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera exhibit reminds us why that’s not the case.

What first strikes visitors to the exhibition is the scale. Epic Abstraction showcases enormous works, many measuring 10 feet or more a side. “Epic” indeed.

Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm serves as the star attraction greeting visitors in the introductory gallery. Pollock being the most famous of the Abstract Expressionists and Autumn Rhythm being perhaps his most recognizable piece makes this choice an obvious one and tantamount to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa opening an exhibit about Renaissance painting.

Did you know Jackson Pollock also had a brother who was an accomplished painter?

Who are the well known Abstract Expressionists?

Along with multiple full-scale examples from Pollock, the exhibit includes numerous smaller drawings by him. Joining Pollock in the exhibit are the superstars of the movement: Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell, Ellsworth Kelly, Clyfford Still.

Sadly missing from The Met presentation is an equal focus on the important women artists of the movement: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigen, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell primary among them. Mary Gabriel’s fabulous “Ninth Street Women” is an essential introduction to these powerful and talented women.

The most prominent African American Abstract Expressionist was Norman Lewis.

Aficionados will of course love the show, but importantly, so too should skeptics of the movement–your in-laws. All that is required of them is an open mind and time. The more time a visitor spends with the works on display, the deeper his or her appreciation grows.

If you’re struggling to enjoy Abstract Expressionism, start with texture. Place yourself right in front of Pollock’s Number 28, 1950, or de Kooning’s Easter Monday. From 10 or 12 inches away, you’ll be able to appreciate the complexity of the surface, how much paint is on the canvas, how many layers appear, small streaks of color you couldn’t notice further away and how each of these paintings creates its own universe.

Slow down.

It’s natural for visitors to mega-museums like The Met to try seeing everything in their once a year or once a lifetime three hour visit. That’s impossible. In attempting to see everything, you’ll actually see nothing.

When you can spend five or 10 minutes with each of these pictures is when they begin coming alive. Take advantage of The Met’s late-night hours on Fridays and Saturdays when the museum stays open until 9:00. The crowds thin out, the noise and bustle fades away, and a deeper, more personal contemplation of what you’re looking at becomes possible.

Instead of attempting to process the entire surface at once, the immense scale and complexity of which can overwhelm, focus on six square inches. Mentally catalog every color, each different way paint appears to have been applied. When you’ve carefully inspected this smaller section, widen out.

Notice where the colors and patterns repeat. Try following the brushstrokes or drips. Move with the motion of the paint application.

A subcategory of Abstract Expressionism is “action painting.” Feel the “action” of the works by Pollock and de Kooning. Imagine the motion of the artist as he was creating what you’re seeing. Observe the artist’s footprint in the corner of Pollock’s Number 7 to realize how physical the act of creating this was.

Mark Rothko paintings on view at The Met’s Epic Abstraction exhibit. CHADD SCOTT

How to look at Abstract Expressionism paintings

A carefully reading of these paintings should allow you to channel the artist to an extent. You may find yourself swaying, your head bobbing, as you admire them. Good. Now you’re getting it.

The more time you spend, the better you’re able to recognize the careful composition of the works. While it may not initially look like it, a great deal of thought went into the finished product you’re seeing. If that weren’t the case, the overall effect of the pictures wouldn’t be so pleasing.

The paint application is not random. What you’re looking at is music, not noise.

That may be the best way to appreciate Abstract Expressionism, as an art form akin to music. A piano or a guitar doesn’t sound like waves crashing or people talking or the wind blowing. Its sound is not representational. It’s abstract. And we all love and appreciate music–even your in-laws.

The same should be the case with Abstract Expressionism.

Kazuo Shiraga won’t be a name familiar to most, but his Untitled may steal the show in an aggravated robbery kind of way. The surface of this piece, oil on paper mounted on canvas, looks like Shiraga pulled the still beating heart out of a man’s chest and smeared it onto the paper, the man’s soul attempting to escape the picture plane, not able to make it before being frozen in place for a tortured eternity.

Mark Rothko paintings on view at The Met’s Epic Abstraction exhibit.  CHADD SCOTT

Epic Abstraction has an open-ended residency at The Met and serves as a great introduction into the genre.

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