In the 1940s and 1950s, abstraction in the US was a radically new form characterised by subjectivity and expressiveness. Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, an emigrant from the Netherlands, sought to use paint in a more spontaneous and emotional fashion; they found their solutions in the intuitive techniques of European Surrealism, where the gestural painting process was supposed to give free rein to the artist’s inner imaginings. The result was the largely uncontrolled application of paint that was termed Action Painting.
In the 1950s, artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman constrained the impulsiveness of Action Painting within their ‘colour fields’, but retained the emotional character of Abstract Expressionism. In their works, areas of colour combine in stark contrasts or complementary interplay. Rothko wanted to use the impact of colour fields to engage the viewer’s sensibilities, while Newman was more interested in a quest for absolute beauty and the sublime.
Meanwhile in Paris, which had held that position for the preceding century and a half, abstract movements came to the fore in the shape of the ‘informel’. Yet figurative art in Europe was by no means a spent force, thanks in particular to Pablo Picasso and—notably through his work as a sculptor—Alberto Giacometti. Francis Bacon (1909–1992), an Irish born British painter working in London, kept the theme of the human image going, producing radically new paintings of violently contorted figures seemingly trapped within cagelike structures.