Research Blog

My work is a print informed experiment. I like to find the meaning of the medium and tinker with its definition.

Art history text book - Dada, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism


Over the last few months I have been writing an art history text book and I would love your feed back! Please feel free to email me about any mistakes, glaring omissions or suggestions. Your responses are crucial to the development of this document and I will be sure to site you as a reference :) I will be uploading a chapter a week over the next month. (unfortunately I havnt used images at this stage due to copyright restrictions)

Dada, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism

In the years during and immediately after the First World War (WWI), several important movements gained prominence in Eastern and Western Europe such as, Dada, Surrealism and Abstraction. Many other significant groups such as the Futurists, Suprematists and Constructivists, along with a multitude of other sub-movements emerged, such as Neo-plasticism, a movement developed by Piet Mondrian. The avant-garde in Germany became prominent and particular painting by Suprematist artist, Kazimer Malevich, Black square, 1913 marked a defining moment for Abstract art. These new movements briefly shifted the centre of the Avant-garde from Paris to North and Eastern Europe. Importantly, both World War I and World War II  forced many artists to migrate between Europe and America, and the new modes of expression became internationalised as artists shared ideas across the Atlantic Ocean. Additionally, leading figures of the European Avant-Garde such as Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Sophie Tauber, among others, spent some of the war and interwar years in the United States of America. 

The Surrealist movement in Europe had a major effect on art in the United States, the movement was instrumental to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism and many of the key, precursory American Abstract Expressionists were European immigrants who identified with Surrealism, such as the Armenian American painter, Arshile Gorky. 



The most Avante Garde movement to emerge in the early 20th century was Dada. Dada was an absurd and ironic reflection of the wartime years in Europe. The initial group of artists, poets, musicians and play-writes were radically anti-war and performed manifestos and theatre productions that reflected their repulsion for what they called 'mass murder' in WWI. The group perpetuated and became an international movement; by 1920, Dada activities had occurred in Zurich, Berlin, New York, Paris, Amsterdam and Moscow as well as many other locations. 


After the rapid developments of Modernism in Paris, in the late 19th and early 20th century, which culminated in Cubism, WWI caused a significant deceleration of avant-garde activity in France. Many artists from all over Europe, seeking a safe haven, emigrated to neutral Switzerland. In 1916, in a cabaret in Zurich artists such as Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Sophie Taeuber, and Hans Richter, along with others, would meet there to discuss art and put on performances. This was the conception of the movement titled, Dada, which would have a profound impact on art in the 20th century. In the year immediately following its dispersal, French writer and poet, Andre Bretton who had been active in the Parisian Dada group, co-founded Surrealism.

Kurt Schwitters / Theo van Doesburg, Kleine Dada Soirée (affisch för dada-turné), 1922


German author and poet Hugo Ball along with cabaret performer Emmy Hennings founded the Cabaret Voltair in 1916; and later, with Tristan Tzara and a group of friends, Dada began. Ball and Tzara were radically anti war, Ball and his wife Hennings having just crossed the German frontier into Switzerland, continued their anarchic opposition to the war in their cabaret performances. 


Many of the artists involved in Dada were aware of the developments in painting and sculpture at the beginning of the 20th century. At the start of WWI, movements such as Cubism and Futurism had already gained widespread popularity throughout Europe and some of the artists involved in the Cabaret Voltair had exhibited in exhibitions affiliated with these movements. The theatrical performances of Futurist plays and manifesto readings were immensely influential for Ball and Tzara. 

Where did Dada begin?





Tzara was Romanian, and it is interesting to note that Romania wasn't initially involved in WWI. The Romanian writer, lawyer and civil servant, Urmuz was an active absurdist writer at the time and may have influenced Tzara’s anti-war position.

Amid the spectre of World War, equipped with the knowledge of pre-war anti establishment art activities, and a heightened awareness of Abstraction, the avant-garde artists of Dada were emboldened to express their ideas about art and politics with creative anarchy.  They created abstractions using language, sound and performance.


It is important to note Marcel Duchamp’s influence on the movement. Before the outbreak of WWI Duchamp had termed the new developments in his practice and that of his contemporaries as Anti-art. At this time, Duchamp had already decried what he termed 'retinal art', which was art that only pleased the eye; instead, Duchamp wanted to create art for philosophical enquiry. Duchamp spent the wartime years in America and influenced the development of Dada and later Neo-Dada in New York. Neo-Dada was one of the sources for multiple artistic developments in late 20th century America, such as Conceptual art and Postmodernism.  

Related movements








Performance art



Neo-Dada is a term applied to artists working in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and often overlaps with Pop art, Performance art and Fluxus. Artists who were categorized as Neo-Dada were influenced by the resurgence of interest in the works of Marcel Duchamp. The absurdist logic of Dada became very influential in 1950s New York, due to the exhibition of several of Duchamp’s Readymades in key galleries and museums. The term particularly applies to the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. 



Vorticism was an avant-garde movement that began in the United Kingdom in 1914. With knowledge of Cubism and Futurism, the Vorticists aimed to express the dynamism of the modern world. Influenced by the aesthetic of Futurism, without the war-like sentiment, the Vorticicist movement was short lived and dispersed with the onset of WWI. Central to its formations was the British artist Wyndham Lewis, other important contributors include sculptor, Sir Jacob Epstein, painter, Helen Saunders and William Roberts.



Anti-art is a term that describes art that challenges accepted norms of production and outcomes. Marcel Duchamp formally coined the term sometime between 1913 and 1914 to describe his Readymades. The Anti-art sentiment has had ongoing influence to this day - from Mail art to Performance art to Anti-form - the term is often used to describe art that pushes the boundaries of accepted practice.



Marcel Duchamp

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Francis Picabia

Tristan Tzara

Hans Arp

Kurt Schwitters


Emmy Hennings

Sophie Tauber

Hanna Hoch


Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp is a seminal figure in the history of 20th century art. His work spans the histories of Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Installation Art and the Readymade. After developing his painting practice in the early years of the 20th century and completing major works in the Cubist style such as, Nude descending staircase, No.2, painted in 1912, Duchamp soon abandoned painting altogether.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912

His dismissal of painting as “retinal art” coincided with his investigations of the Readymade. The Readymade is the use of pre-existing found or purchased objects presented as artwork. This was a radical breakthrough and expanded notions about what constituted art, as well the material possibilities for art production. Found Objects are chosen for the aesthetic or conceptual meanings that were implied by the objects re-categorisation, often relying on the art gallery to fulfill this chimeric change. The development of the Readymade can be seen as an extension of the use of collage in painting because collage re-posited an existing material into artworks. The readymade has had an ongoing influence on art to this day and was seminal for the development of Pop art. 


Sophie Tauber-Arp

There were many active and influential female artists involved in Dada, however, due to the traditional and predominantly patriarchal lineage of Art History there is not an adequate record of their contribution. Sophie Tauber (Switzerland 1889-1943) was one of those artists. Her reputation, like a lot of female Modernists, has been slow to rise. 


In 1922, Tauber married Dada artist, Jean Arp. Initially meeting at the Cabaret Voltair and becoming primary members of Dada, the couple engaged in a very active and diverse life of art education, collective practice and exhibiting. At 42 years of age her life was accidentally cut short and her legacy has been virtually overlooked. Despite this, she was clearly influential as a member of Dada and her abstract work is contemporaneous with Kazimer Malevich’s 1915 Suprematist painting 0.01 (Black square). Her textile works are an important legacy. Tauber-Arp’s summation of Constructivist abstraction into textiles indicates she was a pioneer in the style. Her 1917 tapestry, Elementary forms, is a quintessential example of her approach to Abstraction. This work was made at a time when the so-called ‘minor or applied arts’, such as tapestry or printmaking, were strictly divided from the ‘fine arts’. Tauber-Arp’s approach was a radical re-integration of the minor and fine arts. This act of collapsing artistic hierarchies became an ongoing theme of 20th century Modernism.  




Kurt Schwitters

Born in Prussia (Germany) in 1882, Kurt Schwitters development of collage marked the first consolidated exploration of of this medium in the 20th century. Utilizing the bourgeoning ubiquity of discarded print media, in 1919, Schwitters created a body of work utilizing found paper and print that explored the formal and conceptual possibilities of the collage technique. As well as collage, Schwitters was one of the first artists to explore assemblage. 

Much of Schwitters material aesthetic came from printed media and machine made, preexisting forms. The re-purposing of existing materials indicates Schwitters as an important Modernist inspiration for artists using recycled material today.



From the relatively small and intimate gatherings at the Cabaret Voltair in early 1916, in which Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Sophie Taeuber, and Hans Richter, along with others, discussed art and put on performances expressing their disgust with the war and the commercial and political interests that inspired it; to its rapid emergence in cities across Europe, the Dada legacy is vast. Dada influence can be identified to this day in Performance art, Postmodernism and Activist art. In 1924 an active member of Parisian Dada, Andre Breton, penned the Surrealist manifesto and sealed the legacy of Dada as one of the most profound and radical movements of the 20th century.  

Which title indicates Marcel Duchamp's most recognisable cubist painting


The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even


Nude descending staircase




All of the above!



René Magritte, 1955, Oil on canvas, 50 cm × 65 cm



Surrealism was a movement encompassing art, literature, and performance, which flourished between WWI and WWII.  Influenced by psychoanalysis, occult ideas and Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious, the Surrealists employed games of chance and Automatism to create artworks. By focusing on the irrational and the unconscious the Surrealists were rejecting the rationalism and reason they believed had guided European culture and politics towards WWI. Grappling with the aftermath of WWI, artists sought forms of expression that could articulate humanity's collective postwar trauma. 

Surrealism emerged from Dada and advanced many of the strategies pioneered by the movement. However, rather than nihilism, Surrealism was constructive. The Anti-art of Dada negated experience through its rejection of WWI, Surrealism on the other hand, was considered positivist in its approach, because of the methodologies of chance and accident. The Surrealists systematised the Dada experiments with the formative influence of Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis and the unconscious.  The Surrealist methodology re-engaged illusionistic rendering and traditional painting practices, however, the subject matter remained obscure, driven by the artists inner emotional responses and a new engagement with traditional materials. 

In the visual arts painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and filmakers engaged in automatic drawing practices and chance to develop Abstract and figurative artworks without pre-conceived designs. Writers and actors employed similar methods to provoke accidents that might activate new ideas. Artists considered such methods to be an actuation of unconscious processes. The unconscious was considered a counterpoint to the rationalist approach driven by the industrial revolution. 


The games of chance and accident, which might include randomly dripping paint onto a canvas, were often considered as a starting point to create opportunities for the artworks development, at other times the accident could constitute the entire work.

Which movement did Surrealism emerge from?





[3] Max Ernst



Surrealism emerged from the Dada movement, which was active during and after WWI, in which proponents created anti-art to negate the brutalities of war and criticize the societies of Europe for their supposed complicity in the atrocities of WWI. For most of Europe’s populations, the post war austerity created a climate of introspection and artists began to express their inner experience as a response to the legacy of conflict. In addition, developments in art and psychology of the late 19th century provided a backdrop for the nascent ideas of the unconscious, which were popularized by spiritualism and the occult.


Theories of the unconscious are evident in the late 19th century movement, Symbolism, in which a preoccupation with dreams and mythology led artists such as Odilon Redon to explore the underlying meanings explicit in symbols. Symbolism could be considered a formative influence on Surrealism. Significantly, the 1899 publication of Sigmund Freud’s influential book, The Interpretation of Dreams, motivated artists and writers to explore the unconscious world of dreams for source material.


Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico (Greece 1888-Italy 1978) continued the Symbolist fascination with psychological manifestations and dreams and had a profound influence on Surrealism. De Chrico’s otherworldly interpretations of Greco-Italian piazzas and architectural colonnades incorporated the Cubist developments of compressed space and flattened form with incorporeal and uncanny subject matter. 


Artists today still practice the Surrealistic style, and the unconscious gesture has become synonymous with intuitive mark making. The now popular theoretical term, practice-led approach implies that the outcome of the artwork is determined by the materials the artist uses in the art-making process. One might say, the artist will allow the artwork to emerge through a practice-led approach. Such ideas have a resonance in the Surrealist application of chance and accident.


Key Artists

Andre Breton

Salvador Dali

Frida Khalo

Merret Openheim

Georgio De Chirico 

Joan Miro

Man Ray

Rene Magritte

Max Ernst

Dorothea Tanning


Rene Magritte

Surrealist artist, Rene Magritte (Belgium 1898-1967) is well known for witty, conceptual painting. His manipulation of inside and outside space paradoxically undermines auto-interpretations of a realistic space by the inclusion of visual conundrums. This highlights the ability of the image to substitute and deceive. When discussing Magritte’s most celebrated work, The treachery of images (this is not a pipe),1948, Philosopher Michel Foucault (France 1926–1984) discusses the endless possibilities of the image and text within The treachery of images. The painting highlights the recurring ambiguity and the reciprocal relationship between the signifier and the signified. In Magritte’s simple juxtaposition, the painting becomes a representation of a representation and the image of the pipe is multiplied, not only by its description in word and image, but because of the uncanny resonance and the multiplication of idea.


Andre Breton

Andre Breton (France 1896-1966) was a French poet, essayist, editor and chief protagonist and cofounder of Surrealism. Breton studied medicine and was influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud, during the WWI Breton became a member of the Parisian Dada group. With similar Dadaist rhetoric Breton penned symbolist inspired absurdist poetry, such as the rythmic poem Choose Life. In the late 1930s, with the onset of WWII, Breton and many other writers and artists moved to America to seek asylum. Surrealism had a renewal in America at this time and Breton was active as a commentator and proponent of the movement. During this time he became affiliated with the artists such as Andreas Gorky whose late Surrealist works are considered proto-Abstract Expressionism. 


Merret Oppenheim

Merret Oppenheim (Germany 1913- Switzerland 1985) was one of the few known female Surrealists . Growing up in Switzerland within a creative family, her father was a psychologist and encouraged Oppenheim to record her dreams. 

Her most celebrated works conflate the function of domestic objects and re-imagine them to function as an absurd or Surrealist object. Méret Oppenheim's best known artwork is Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) [Object (Breakfast in Fur)] (1936) is a teacup, saucer and spoon covered with the fur of a Chinese gazelle. The repurposing of an existing object is a sign that Oppenheim had knowledge of Duchamp’s Readymades and Dada. The simplicity of form and the uncanny re-signification of meaning and function in Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) gave Oppenheim international fame when it was purchased and exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.


Related terms

Cadaver Esquis (Exquisite corpse)



The unconscious 

The Uncanny

Surrealist automatism


Fantasy art

Sci-Fi art

Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman, Exquisite Corpse, Etching on paper


Surrealist automatism

Surrealist automatism is an art technique that was said to activate the unconscious. Automatism is a term with multiple meanings, in Law and Medicine it may refer to the negative impacts of unmotivated automatic behavior. However the Surrealists were influenced by the practice of Automatic writing or psychography which is the practice of unconscious writing.

Cadaver Esquis (Exquisite corpse)

Also named, 'Le Grande Cadaver', the Exquisite corpse is a collaborative game in which multiple artists are responsible for drawing, painting or sculpting only a portion of a human figure, animal or plant motif. The different components of the figure are then re-assembled (usually by the unfolding of a single sheet of paper on which each artist has drawn) to reveal an absurdist, imaginative and highly inventive interpretation of the given subject.

[4] Jackson Pollock, Echo: Number 25, 1951, 1951


Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism is a term applied to a movement that emerged in New York, post World Ware Two (WWII), sometimes referred to as the New York School. It is characterized by the negation of figurative and recognizable imagery, replacing this with abstraction, which took the form of broad brushstrokes, flat colour, drips and swipes of thick paint. These new methods of applying paint were combined with new ways to approach the canvas, which might be situated on the floor or shaped into forms other than a square or rectangle. 


After WWII, America experienced an unprecedented post-war boom and Abstract Expressionism marked the rising of New York City’s status as the new centre of the Western art world. With the gravity of WWII in the recent past and a bourgeoning cultural and economic explosion, American artists explored Abstraction through mythology, spiritualism and the unconscious on canvases; the proportions of which sometimes exceeded the frescos of Renaissance Italy. 


Mark making, gesture, colour and scale are some of the primary methods used in Abstract Expressionism. Such an expansive and liberated methodology could be a reflection of America’s postwar boom; however, the somber subject matter and patriarchal gravitas, accorded to the work of both male and female Abstract Expressionists, indicates that post-war collective grief may have influenced their forms of expression. Artist and Jewish immigrant, Mark Rothko, painted large-scale abstract paintings with mythological and often somber narratives. Dutch immigrant Willem de Kooning painted highly expressive, almost violent images of figures. This cimmerian and introspective imagery was evident in immigrant European artists who came to America before WWII. Pioneering Abstract Expressionist, Arshile Gorky who’s childhood was marred by fleeing the Armenian genocide of 1915-1916, produced paintings seemingly imbued with this personal history. 

There were two main groupings of Abstract Expressionists: the painters who employed expressive brushstrokes with seemingly spontaneous mark making, often called Action Painters, and those who explored colour for the strong sensations it can affect on those viewing the work called Colourfield painters, who presented large areas of pure colour on canvas. 

[5] Louis Morris. Belta Delta, 1961, magna on canvas 256x40cm

The types of painting practices that have been largely associated with Action Painting are Jackson Pollock’s technique of dripping paint onto canvas, De Kooning’s expressive gestural painting with large brushes and broad wet on wet  brush strokes, and Joan Mitchell's repetitive and frenetic mark making. This school of Abstraction acknowledged the artist's body as an integral aspect of the painting and the brush-mark came to reference an action the artist had made. The terminology evolved to define performance art methodologies in the international movement, Fluxus. German artist Joseph Beuys, used the term Actions to describe his performances and public works.


[6] Untitled Etching 1 (First Version)' by Barnett Newman, 1968


The methods for the artists defined as Colourfield painters were broad. Artists might apply colour with geometric precision or with more expressive painterly methods. For instance, Jewish American artist Mark Rothko used quick gestural methods to apply paint to large areas of canvas and is considered a key pre-cursory artist of Colourfield painting. Other artists, such as American painter Clifford Still, applied paint in large swathes of colour with pallet knives and other tools. Artis and educator, Barnett Newman painted whole canvases in a single colour leaving only vertical strips to reveal or conceal painting underneath or above the layer of paint. Over a decade later the Minimalists extended this line of enquiry by reducing the painted surface altogether. Artists, such as Agnes Martin, defined the shift from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism; her practice is an important example of minimalist painting methods. 



Formatively influenced by Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism was concerned with the unconscious. Andre Breton’s presence in New York (USA) during WWII proceeded from a renewal of Surrealism in the USA and internationally. Surrealism's international influence was extensive at this time, with proponents as far afield as Australia; lyrical abstract painter Sam Atyeo and painter of biomorphic Surrealist landscapes, James Gleeson, both identified as Australian Surrealists in the interwar years and after.


In America, artists such as Armenian-American, Arshile Gorky were allowing their paint to drip down the surface of the canvas. His uninhibited and painterly gestures, executed in smears, wipes and definitive marks could be discussed in the Yungian or Freudian philosophies of the unconscious and Surrealist notions of chance. However, the physicality of the paint, which seems to have been applied with some great urgency, is a sign of the emergence of an action based painting method. Gorky is considered an important link between European Abstraction and Abstract Expressionism.


The idea of Abstract art spread rapidly with the inception of Cubism and it quickly became an international movement. Artists in countries from Australia to Japan became renowned for their experiments in Abstraction. Australian artist Roy de Maistre’s lyrical colour explorations of 1919 were some of the first by an Australian artist and his work from this period is internationally renowned.



Arshile Gorky

Jackson Pollock

Franz Kline

Mark Rothko

Joan Mitchell

Antonia Tapies

Lee Krazner

Helen Frankenthaler

Willem de Kooning

Al Held

Alfred Leslie


Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky is often described as the 'last Surrealist and the first Abstract Expressionist'. His story is shrouded in the history of late 19th and early 20th Century persecution of the Armenian ethnic minority in the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). Becoming a child refugee and finding asylum in America, Gorky studied art and design. His most celebrated work is a short period of intense artistic experimentation, before his untimely death by suicide in 1948, which was preceded by a series of unfortunate events such as his marriage breakdown, breaking his neck and a studio fire, which destroyed many of his paintings. Most of his most renowned works have elements of biomorphic Surrealism stylistically similar to the Spanish artist Joan Miro. However, Gorky’s works are painted with a gesture and action, which is explicitly comprehended when viewing the works. 


Helen Frankenthaler 

Helen Frankenthaler, born into a wealthy New York family in 1928, has long been recognized as one of the most influential artists of the mid-20th Century. Early in her career she was introduced to, and influenced by, major abstract expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Her six decade career began as a second generation abstract expressionist in 1950 when Adolph Gottlieb selected a work for inclusion in an exhibition titled fifteen unknowns at the Kootz gallery in New York and she had her first solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1951. In 1952 she developed her own distinct approach to abstraction, by pouring turpentine thinned paint directly onto raw canvas laid on the studio floor. Through this invention of the soak-stain technique she expanded the possibilities of abstract painting, producing a body of work whose impact on contemporary art has been profound and continues to grow.  


Lee Krasner 

Born in New York in 1908, Lee (Lenore) Krasner. After studying at Cooper Union, the Art students League and the National Academy of Design, Krasner was a student of Hans Hoffman intermittently from 1937 to 1940. In 1940, Krasner joined the American Abstract Artists (AAA). Her participation in AAA exhibitions from 1940 to 1943, her outspoken attitude, involvement in protests organized by the Artists Union, and her affiliation with Hofmann’s school increased her reputation. She participated in several group exhibitions including 'French and American Painting', an exhibition at McMillen Inc. design studios which also included work by Jackson Pollock. After receiving the offer to participate in the exhibition, Krasner visited Pollock’s studio to introduce herself, and in 1945 they were married in an intimate ceremony in The Springs, Long Island. A member of the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters, Krasner’s work was both a dialogue with her contemporaries, as well as a critique of the excesses and biases of Abstract expressionism.  

[7] Lee Krasner . Noon, 1947, oil on linen

Alfred Leslie

Alfred Leslie, born in 1927 in New York, spent his youth taking photographs, making short films and actively training as a competitive gymnast. After serving in the US Coast Guard during WWII he returned to New York and resumed both his image making and gymnastic pursuits, and using his GI Bill privileges he studied at various schools, including New York University and the Art Students League. He also managed to earn a living modelling for many of the most influential artists of the New York art scene - because of his athletic physique. While first generation ab - ex painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, made their names in the late 40s, Leslie continued to make films and study, and it  wasn't until 1952 that he had his first solo exhibition. He enjoyed success as a key member of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, but continued passionately to make films throughout the 1950s and 60s in collaboration with the Beat poets and writers. Although starting to paint figuratively some years earlier, the tragic death of the poet Frank O'Hara in 1966 and the loss of many films and paintings in a fire, hardened his resolve to focus entirely on figurative work. The loss inspired 'The Killing Cycle', a series of five major paintings in the manner of Caravaggio and hundreds of studies created between 1967 and 1981. Now in his nineties, Leslie continues to live and work in New York.  


Al Held 

Considered a prominent second generation Abstract Expressionist, Al Held was born in New York in 1928, and enrolled in the Art Students League in 1947 after serving in the Navy. He went to Paris in 1949 and, funded by the GI Bill, he studied for three years at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Before leaving for France, Held was impressed by Jackson Pollock’s paintings in New York, and when he arrived in Paris he completely abandoned figuration. He became part of the American expatriate circle that included artists such as Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, and Joan Mitchell; and had his first solo exhibition in Paris at the artist-run Galerie Huit in 1952. Returning to New York, his paintings of the 1950s were heavily impasto'd, tactile canvases combining multidirectional strokes applied with a palette knife. These works retained the expressive gestures of Abstract Expressionism, but his persistent exploration of illusionistic potential within abstraction defied many of the labels of Abstract Expressionist movements. In the early 1960s, Held’s paintings moved toward a growing sense of overall clarity with sharpened contours, geometric forms, and enlarged scale. In 1967, he became tired of the reductive geometric quality and flatness of his work and strove to incorporate space and volume into his canvases. An important formal aspect of this work was his tendency to crop forms, creating the impression that they continued to expand outside the pictures edge. After 1978, until his death in 2005, Held continually experimented with vibrant colours, perspective, space, and complex interlocking geometric forms in his illusionistic architecturally scaled paintings.


Related terms

Biomorphic Surrealism

Gestural painting

Action painting

Colourfield painting


Gestural painting

Gestural painting is a process in which the motion of the arm is an important aspect of the process. Often paint is applied with vigour and the spontaneous outcome of this is Gestural painting. Synonymous with Action painting.


Action painting

Action painting often relates to the activity of Gestural painting on a large-scale. Rather than the movement of the arm, the whole body is considered an integral force in the mark making process.


Colourfield painting

Colourfield painting is the expressive use of colour. In this style of painting, colour can be applied through combinations and juxtapositions of colour; or surfaces of single colours, which might envelope the viewer when seen at close quarters.


Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of Pixabay under CC0 1.0.

[2] Image courtesy of Pixabay under CC0 1.0.

[3] Image courtesy of CEA + under CCBY 2.0

[4] Image courtesy of Sharon Mollerus under CCBY 2.0

[5]  Image courtesy of Google Art Project under CCBY 2.0

[6] Image courtesy of Google Art Project under CCBY 2.0 

[7] Image courtesy of Google Sarah Killeen under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0