The artistic and aesthetic process of Abstract Expressionism vs. High Minimalism

by Drew Landon Harris


Artistic movements happen around a group of artists who have similar ideas when it comes to their process and artistic philosophy. Often a style is formed due to similar processes and mediums. High minimalism was a movement of reduction and form. This means that high minimalist pieces are planned and detailed prior because the pieces support directly correlates with its composition. In the process of abstract expressionism the aesthetic and compositional values are directly correlated with the process and a piece evolves with the emotions of the artist, medium or composition. There are artists who are recognized with a movement and their process but often their style is mostly recognized with that movement. Frank Stella is recognized with the high minimalist movement and Mark Rothko is associated with abstract expressionism. These processes and movements grew out of different periods and groups with resulting styles and each have important and profound insights to the artistic process and its aesthetic values through emotion and reduction. By studying these artists’ processes we gain a better understanding of the artist’s pieces and can learn from their process and even assimilate your own process with certain aspects of theirs. “…to attempt to understand these things we must study what the artist though would contribute to their final beauty and how he sought to construct it. In that way we can attain a notion of what the whole business of beauty is about.” (Rothko, 66)

Abstract Expressionism was birthed from WWII and was the first uniquely American art movement to create international acclaim and influence. There is a large emphasis on the spontaneous, the automatic or subconscious artistic creation. This brings about the emotional side. Pollock’s action paintings emphasize this spontaneous and subconscious composition. The artists of the movement seemed to tap into the spiritual and unconscious state of mind to create their compositions resulting in a composition which also speaks directly to the viewers unconscious aesthetic state. These artists also questioned the idea of beauty, aesthetically and philosophically. Rothko stated, “Our notions of beauty today are essentially Platonic… our most manifest and comprehensive reality is Platonic. In fact it is difficult to escape the Platonic notion of beauty in any period. The Renaissance artist, who was definitely interested in appearances and who was preponderantly pragmatic in his attitude toward nature, could never quite work—even pragmatically— without the notion of an abstract ideal of beauty.” (Rothko, 10)

He continues to elaborate and defend his process and his aesthetic philosophy of beauty.

“All of our present academic painter who believe that they are holding a mirror up to nature are really deceiving themselves. For if the perfection of a picture was based upon its exact imaging of the object, no one could really participate in the understanding of that perfection… in spite of their faith in appearances as reality, these artists made their own… distortions— for distortion was precisely what was—to attain perfection… This entire notion of distortion is closely allied to the notion of beauty today, especially where the expressionists have introduced a kid of distortion which is more extreme… these distortions are simply a variation of the sort practiced by both Dürer and Leonardo, and more violently by Signorelli and Michelangelo, as well as by nearly all of their contemporaries and no less by the Benetians, who went to extremes in the distortion of sensuality… The distortions practiced today by the expressionists are contrived to achieve the emotionality of the emotional, actuated by the consciousness…” (Rothko, 65-69)

Although Mark Rothko is recognized with the Abstract Expressionist movement, he denied that his Color Field pieces were abstract. These large canvases brushed with layers of color into blocks have an immersive or “enveloping” quality (Hobbs). Viewers seem to enthrall their subconscious and emotional state of mind in the composition as Rothko’s Color Field paintings grabs at their unconscious being in revealing layers of thin strokes and bleeding values. More importantly their size creates a fully immersive & enveloping experience in Rothko’s process. Rothko dilutes the oils to a very loose liquid then covers the surface of the canvas. Layers of the diluted oils are built up, glazing in a way until the he’s pleased with the tone. Each block of color is built in this way. Rothko elaborated on these pieces for some critics, saying “I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!” (Rothko [Subject in Abstraction] 119)

Minimalism seemed to be birthed of war as well. It was post World War II when groups of artists set out to eliminate non-essential elements of conventional art composition, but still capture the essence of a subject. These compositions arrived in New York in the 60’s and grew out of geometric abreactions. These artists gained their influence and inspiration from a diverse group of artists from Duchamp, Mondrian, Picasso and more.

“Modernist premise of formal innovation: art could be a declaration, an idea. Dissatisfied by such contemporaries as the Cubists or the Fauves, Duchamp proposed a more ‘conceptual’ art. The readymade, produced in a factory, bore no trace of the artist’s hand; it seemed to lack formal complexity and therefore did not resemble a ‘work of art’. Minimal art, however, used factory-made objects to achieve formalist- type reduction. It was thus based on an internal contradiction: presenting itself as ‘high’, formal art…” (Meyer 18)

This idea of reduction of artwork is an essential component to minimalist art. Artists within the time of High Minimalism (1964-67) made a concurring distinction between the relational method and the non-relational method (Meyer 25). Stella explained that relational work is based upon some pictorial coherence. He listed Picasso as an example because his works, however abstract, all depict something regardless of the mode of depiction (Meyer 25). Much of this assimilation of non-relational work was due to the growing post-modern worldview: there is no truth, no underlying meaning to things. This however made for a disconnect with the non-art audience as they could not relate to a work without a subject. Frank Stella, along with Donald Judd and others, were some of the initial artists in this ‘minimal’ movement, however they never coined the reductive methods and style as ‘minimal’ (History of Art).

Frank Stella is one of the movement’s artists who is still living and working today. Stella was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1936. He attended Princeton and made some visits to New York galleries, inspiring his artistic drive. Soon after graduation, Stella moved to New York where he began his work (Ayers). Stella quickly reacted against the expressionistic use of paint by most abstractionists at the time. He began to create pieces that depicted the piece as the subject, rather than the piece depicting a subject. This is a key viewpoint within his artistic process. Around the 1960’s, Stella said that a painting was “a flat surface with paint on it – nothing more (History of Art)” Around this time he also released his series, Black Paintings, in which he painted black stripes in series onto canvas. “Their large scale recalls the size of the Abstract Expressionists’ paintings, although their monochromatic palette and symmetry deny the possibility of unexpected chromatic or compositional relationships. Stella used the thickness of the support to dictate the width of the stripes, allowing the material edge of the canvas, rather than spontaneous ‘artistic expression’ to determine the work’s organization (Meyer 47).”

Point of Pines is an example of these pieces. The thickness of the line is determined by the support’s size, and the support actually determines the composition. In Point of Pines, the angle at which the lines lay is designed so that they meet in the middle of the composition creating equilateral triangles.

Stella continued his work with this idea of the support determining the work’s organization. His work even evolved to incorporate shaped canvases and multiple mediums such as enamel and aluminum. Luis Miguel Dominguin is an example of the Aluminum Paintings. Luis Miguel Dominguin, and the others within the series, break the pattern of the earlier Black Paintings where the support shapes the composition. The stripes break away and ‘jog’ to form new, almost decorative patterns (Meyer 49). The composition left blank squares and rectangles because of this linear paths, and Stella cut the canvas and shaped the support around that, creating dynamic negative space. Stella’s work has evolved even further, incorporating color and breaking out of linear shapes to incorporate some expressive marks and his process still continues to evolve today, as he is 75 years of age and still working.

Stella has been a great influence on my work for a few years now. I’ve studied his methodologies and philosophies and assimilated parts of his process with my own. In a way I have been studying reductive compositions through my work ever since I first picked up “Working Space”. The linear movement and defining the composition by the pieces supports has been a regular part of my work which is something I learned directly from his process. This has been a common theme in my work and throughout the each piece in the Space Between series. Some of Rothko’s discoveries in the process and methodologies I found profound or useful so I tried to assimilate some of these with my own process. “Infinite Reality [General Relativity & The Event Horizon]” takes a more Abstract Expressionist ideology with the distortion and abstraction within the composition. The piece’s strokes are emotional and some are more stabs than strokes. Like Rothko, I diluted down oils to sort of glaze certain areas with pigment. Above the underpainting’s hues are layers of oils worked into the canvas and built up and almost sculpted with a pallet knife, creating new color relations which aesthetic qualities. Plaster was applied to the piece violently and emotionally, building texture and creating relief. Compositional planning was minimal in that basic sketches, jotted notes and mental compositional and aesthetic plans were the only references for the piece. The piece itself evolved from an idea and a sort of communication to an enveloping piece full of emotion and action.

The title of the piece “Infinite Reality” addresses the idea that the unknown and the mysteries of ourselves and what we don’t understand fully in our universe is what drives our reality and we continue to develop and realize how infinite the realities of our universe really are. We may never fully understand our reality around us but that will keep us constantly searching and exploring and finding joy in all that makes up our “infinite reality”. The sub-title of this piece relates the composition a little more with the initial title. The overall idea was planned but the piece was allowed to evolve and develop into it’s final composition. This development taps into the subconscious creation and the unconscious emotional composition. This being very similar to many Abstract Expressionists philosophies similar to Pollocks “action paintings” or similar to Rothko letting his edges bleed.

Rothko’s dilution technique stayed with my process into a much more planned out and reductive piece called “Finite Reality [Law of Equivalent Exchange]” The underpainting of this piece is diluted oils to block in pigments. Lines and edges bleed throughout, letting the characteristics of the medium be emphasized and allowing the composition and medium to develop together. However, the composition, loose with bleeding lines, is purposeful and intentional, even down to supports, media choice, pallet, etc. The width of the piece’s support determined the brush width and spacial divides throughout the piece. Above the underpainitng but below the linear composition are two color blocks with bleeding edges dividing the canvas into two, one side gold leafing, the other silver-metallic oil-based paint. This perception of balance has an innate sense of value due to the archaic associations with the finite elements and the value we put into them. The further most layer is a linear design painted directly over the composition. The linear paths at first seem to flow and connect but as the composition envelops the viewer, the separation of these linear blocks becomes clear and each separate block is its own entity. The black, oil-based paint covers much of the gold leaf and reaches itself onto the silver side while the opaque white gesso covers much of the silver side and lowers it self onto and upon the golden side. This movement in form communicates a shift and movement that stays balanced however yet still intertwined. At the very center of the composition a streak of crimson ink divides the bordering black and white blocks. The stroke starts below the overarching black block and bleeds down and off the canvas, in a way cutting the white path visually and metaphorically. The sub heading of this piece, Law of Equivalent Exchange, shows an influence of alchemy and connects the precious metals within the composition with the ideology of the linear balance and exchange. This idea, for one thing to be attained in our universe, another thing must be lost, is also very similar to theories of universal balance where energy is never created, only used and the energy is converted, thus this idea is there is a finite amount of energy in the universe and it only changes from potential to kinetic and so forth.

Although the two pieces have a sort of dichotomy in their emphasis, each incorporates methodologies and practices of Rothko and Stella, down to the initial planning and building assimilated with my own artistic process and philosophy. Each step of each piece’s process was intentional to not only assimilate profound and effective ideologies from the movements and their artists, but to also begin to more wholly understand the artists themselves, their process and their pieces.


Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract expressionism. (Reprinted 1999 ed. ed.). London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Chave, Anna (1989) Mark Rothko, 1903–1970: A Retrospective. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Chave, Anna (1989) Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hobbs (1981) Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years. London: Cornell University Press.

Meyer, J. (2000) Minimalism. London: Phaidon.
Pincus-Witten (1977) Postminimalism. New York: Out of London Press

Rothko, M., & Rothko, C. (2004) The artist’s reality: Philosophies of art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Stella, F. (1986) Working Space. Cambridge: Harvard UP. Stella, F. (2012) Connections.

Stella, F. (2012) The art story. Retrieved from stella-frank.htm

VanEenoo, C. (2011) Minimalism in Art and Design: Concept, Influences, Implications

Images of Pieces. 3’x3’.

“Infinite Reality [General Relativity & The Event Horizon]”

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“Finite Reality [Law of Equivalent Exchange]”

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