Our previous blog post noted Pollock, along with many other American artists, were responsible for what many critics and scholars agree was America’s first original art movement. Born in the WWII years in New York, its style was wholly original, and it was propagated by a group of identifiable artists who had a framework, loose as it might be, as to what they believed they were creating. Many artists within the Abstract Expressionist tag disagreed with the label, it should be noted: Mark Rothko, for example, vehemently disagreed with suggestions his Colour Field style paintings were abstract, although labelled so by the rest of the community. This disagreement points to a greater issue at the heart of any discussion of style and history: to what extent is a movement truly original? A large part would be the degree of innovation contained within the paintings, and to identify that, it is important to know where the style came from.

Abstract expressionism, along with Pollock paintings, drew on the long and rich history of pre WWI and WWII modern art movements. The most important movement was Surrealism, which first broached the idea of unprompted, automatic or subconscious creation in writing and painting. Another movement that had a prominent influence on Abstract Expressionism and Pollock paintings was the work of the American Northwest artists, in particular Mark Tobey, who has been credited with creating the white writing canvases that are large in scale and had the all-over feel and approach of Pollock paintings. Tobey experienced considerable success with a 1942 exhibition of expressionist paintings with a strong Eastern influence, an event credited to increasing the contemporary discourse and development of Abstract Expressionism at the time.

Perhaps the most important philosophical contributor for the movement came from its closest etymological cousin, the German Expressionists, who all emphasised self-denial and emotional intensity as a pivotal part of the creative process. The anti-figurative aspect of expression itself came from the Cubist, Bauhaus and Futurist approaches before, movements that themselves had their original roots in early modern art epitomised by Wassily Kandinsky. The idea of emotional intensity was closely linked to Kandinsky’s belief in the pureness of spirit that could be expressed though painting: this tradition was carried on by later Abstract Expressionists such as Paul Klee, Barnett Newman, Rothko, Agnes Martin and John McLaughlin.

Finally, this blog post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning an often overlooked source of the movement’s birthplace: women. While many know the name of Jackson Pollock, less so can identify his wife, Lee Krasner. Even less people, we’d wager, could identify the name Janet Sobel, a Ukrainian American female artist acknowledged as pre-dating Pollock drip paintings by at least 10 years. Sobel, born Jennie Lechovsky, first started painting in 1937 at the age of 43. She held a prominent exhibition in 1945, named Women, with support from Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in Manhattan. That same year was the year Pollock started formalising his drip painting style. Pollock, of course, did not directly credit the show, but his close friend and art critic Clement Greenberg said the event most definitely had an impact. In an essay titled ‘American-Type’ Painting: “Pollock (and I myself) admired these pictures rather furtively…Later on, Pollock admitted that these pictures had made an impression on him.” To say made an impression could be the understatement of the century.