What Makes an Abstract Expressionist Painting Good?

Photo courtesy: Bastian, via Flickr.

Photo courtesy: Bastian, via Flickr.

One of my responsibilities here at Artsy Editorial is to ponder the art-historical questions that are perhaps best answered either with a raised eyebrow or by saying, “because duh, that’s why.” Today’s entry in this series: What makes a work of Abstract Expressionist art good?

As in previous iterations (see: Why buy a painting when you can make your own?), the simplest of queries sometimes raises interesting and compelling ideas if one stares at it hard enough. In exploring subjective questions of quality and their relationship to the art-historical canon, one finds that a “good” AbEx work is one that is determined to be so by both the viewer and the critics and experts, as well as being the result of societal biases (more on that last part later).

Abstract Expressionism is perhaps one of the most recognized historical genres. Blame it on the impact of these typically large-scale, vibrant works, their permanent presence in the Art History 101 curriculum, or the skeptical cries of “My kid could do that!” The term originally rose to prominence in the mid-20th century to describe a group of artists working in New York following World War II. You know their names: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline—the list goes on.

The painters were championed or chided (often both) by critics of the day such as Clement Greenberg, who had both unparalleled influence and art-historical clout, unlike critics of our current age. They had their own standards of AbEx quality—how flat a painting was, for example.

Though broadly interested in using abstraction as a way to convey individual emotions, the painters who worked in an AbEx mode actually spanned a wide range of techniques, styles, and intentions. In short, like all art-historical groupings, AbEx is both broad and somewhat limiting in how it brings together a diverse range of artists. Each artist had a signature style, from Pollock’s spontaneous, chaotic drip technique to Rothko’s atmospheric squares.

An understanding of this historical background and criticism are important, but really appreciating Abstract Expressionism is “not about reading a textbook,” said Gwen Chanzit, curator of modern art at the Denver Art Museum, who curated this year’s “Women of Abstract Expressionism” exhibition. Indeed, the quality of an Abstract Expressionist work can be gauged mainly by how it makes you feel.

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