Abstract art and Abstract Expressionism
The most significant influence on the themes and concepts of the Abstract Expressionists wasSurrealism. The American painters were uneasy with the overt Freudian symbolism of the European movement, but they were inspired by its interests in the unconscious, as well as its strain of primitivism and preoccupation with mythology. Many were particularly interested in the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who believed that elements of a collective unconscious had been handed down through the ages by means of archetypal symbols – primordial images which had become recurrent motifs. This gave many artists the impetus to move away from the biomorphic Surrealism of Miró and Picasso, and towards an increasingly reductive style. Rothko and Newman are typical of this progress: Rothko experimented with abstract symbols in the early 1940s before moving towards entirely abstract fields of color; Newman similarly sought an approach which might strip away all extraneous motifs and communicate everything through one powerfully resonant symbol – in his case, the so-called ‘zip‘ paintings.
The themes and concepts which informed Abstract Expressionism may have lost the power to compel young artists, but the movement’s achievements continue to supply them with standards against which to be measured.
Willem De Kooning
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