Abstract Expressionism, Hard Edge & Color Field Painting

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  • 0:02 Modern Abstract Art
  • 2:06 Color Field
  • 3:12 Hard Edge Painting
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many styles of modern abstract art, and all share similarities and differences. Explore three styles of art, and test your understanding of them with a brief quiz.

Modern Abstract Art

There's been a lot of heavy art theory in these lessons, so how about we take a break for some story time? This is the story of 'Goldilocks and the Three Styles of Abstract Art'; it's one of my favorites. You see, Goldilocks is this art critic who wanders into an exhibition of modern art, and although she realizes that she likes abstraction, she can't quite find a style that fits her tastes. This story takes place after World War II, between the late '40s and '60s, when American abstract art was first really taking off and artists were exploring the idea that art did not need to be representative of anything other than art itself. Cool, right? Trust me, this is a classic art history fairy tale here. You'll love it.

Goldilocks and Abstract Expressionism

It was a bright and sunny day in New York City and Goldilocks found herself wandering about the streets. As she dodged honking cars and runaway taxis, she saw an exhibition of modern abstract art. 'How perfect', she thought, and went in. Goldilocks entered the first room and found a painting by Jackson Pollock entitled No. 5.

No. 5, by Jackson Pollock, 1948
Jackson Pollock, No. 5

'How lovely', she thought, 'this painting rejects the need for a representative subject and is purely abstract.'

But while Goldilocks liked the abstract nature, she did not appreciate how uncontrolled it was. Abstract Expressionism as a style was too spontaneous, relying on the artists' subconscious to spontaneously drip, splatter or sling paint at a canvas. But, while Goldilocks did not like the technique, she appreciated that the size and color of the piece created a deeply emotional connection on a primeval, subconscious level. Still, the energy was too chaotic for Goldilocks, but since she knew that abstract expressionism had many variations, she kept wandering further into the exhibit.

Goldilocks and Color Field

Goldilocks turned a corner in the exhibition and suddenly found herself face to face with Onement III by Barnett Newman.

Onement III, by Barnett Newman

'Wow', she thought, 'this is much more controlled.'

Goldilocks knew that this was a variation of abstract expressionism called Color Field, which was defined by the interaction of flat planes of color to create a deeply emotional composition. Like more traditional abstract expressionism, color field works had no subject beyond the colors and were meant to communicate with the viewer on a subconscious level. And instead of being very energetic and emotional, color field painting was much more calm and rational.

But 'oh no,' thought Goldilocks, 'although this is carefully planned, with less emphasis on the physical act of painting, it's still somewhat expressive.'

Voice of Fire, 1967, by Barnett Newman
Voice of Fire, 1967, Barnett Newman

Goldilocks did not like that the paint felt as if it was applied in rough brushstrokes, to her it was still too expressive, and so she kept wandering further and further into the exhibition.

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