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Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism

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Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism

The Abstract Expressionism art movement is in many ways similar to the 1920’s Surrealism art movement. There are similarities and key distinctions between the two styles. According to Hobbs, “Although both Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism are concerned with the subconscious or unconscious mind, the former is classical in orientation whereas the latter is romantic. I am here using “classical” to mean the desire to create an order that is understandable by a group and “romantic” to mean the distillation of perceived truth through the personal vision of the artist” (Hobbs, pg 299) Both Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, focus on allowing the subconscious mind to come through in their work. According to Hobbs, “The Surrealists regarded the poet’s study or the painter’s studio as a laboratory where they could experiment with creativity in the form of automatic writing and psychic automatism. Although they sought to discover thought before it becomes rational, the Surrealists were rarely content to leave inchoate scribblings in their finished poems or mindless doodles and puddles of paint in their completed paintings; rather they felt compelled to exercise the constraints of the conscious analytic mind on these unbridled outbursts and to force them into culturally prescribed areas in order to make the mysterious comprehensible” (Hobbs, pg. 299). The Surrealists wanted the subconscious mind to come through in their artwork but they also wanted the viewer to understand the statement they were making in their art.


The Abstract Expressionist painters had a different method behind their artwork. According to Hobbs, “Many Abstract Expressionists used an improvisatory technique that resembled psychic automatism, which Motherwell termed “plastic automatism.” Motherwell identified it as a sequence of three logical stages; scribbling or doodling to coax the mind to release its sub, pre, or unconscious elements; reflecting on these improvisations to see what kinds of structures they suggest; and ordering all the elements into a composition that takes into consideration these structures and builds on them. A basic assumption of both plastic and psychic automatism is that the unconscious mind is the real great creative genius, the artistic muse whose powers must be first unleashed and then regrouped into some acceptable order” (Hobbs, pg. 299). He goes on to state, “But Motherwell and his fellow Abstract Expressionists chose to complete the third phase of psychic automatism in a way that radically differs from many Surrealists: unlike the Surrealists, they were content to play on spontaneity and allow it a role in the completed work” (Hobbs, pg 299). What sets the Abstract Expressionists a part from Surrealists is that they did not need to have an exact plan for their artwork. The Abstract Expressionists liked spontaneity in their artwork and did not interfere with the subconscious process as much as the Surrealists did in order to convey their emotions.



 Surrealism: Marcel Duchamp- Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912


Abstract Expressionism: Willem de Kooning- Excavation, 1950


The Duchamp and Kooning paintings above are good to compare in order to better understand the fundamental difference between Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism. The Nude Descending a Staircase and Excavation are similar in color and technique but have a different impact on the viewer. The Surrealism painting Nude Descending a Staircase, has a human like central figure in the piece painted multiple times to give the impression that it is descending a staircase. The Abstract Expressionism painting Excavation, has many shapes seeming to form faces throughout the piece but has no clear structure or action. The fundamental difference between Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism is that Abstract Expressionism art did not have a coherent structure or message.




Hobbs, Robert C. "Early Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism." Art Journal 45.4 (1985): 299. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

"Marcel Duchamp Nude Descending a Staircase No2 1912." The Surrealists Website. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. <http://www.surrealists.co.uk/viewPicture/73/>.

"Willem De Kooning." Redirect. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. <http://academics.smcvt.edu/gblasdel/slides ar333/webpages/w. dekooning, excavation.htm>.




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