Abstract Expressionism in Sculpture

by Scott Thompson
Abstract expressionist sculpture is part of the avant-garde in modern art.

Abstract expressionist sculpture is part of the avant-garde in modern art.

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The abstract expressionist movement developed in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s as a uniquely American expression of the avant-garde. The abstract expressionists were influenced by the European surrealist movement, socialist politics and Jungian psychology, but they combined these influences into a new style that emphasized grand scale and strong emotions. Although the movement was focused primarily on painting, there were also abstract expressionist sculptors such as David Smith.

Abstract Expressionism

The Great Depression of the 1930s created an intellectual climate favorable to radical politics, and a number of artists active in New York City in the 1940s shared leftist sentiments. Political troubles in Europe led a number of surrealist artists to relocate to New York, and the Surrealists' focus on the unconscious mind had a profound influence on a group of artists interested in Jungian archetypes and mythological symbols. These elements were combined into a new style of painting, photography and sculpture called abstract expressionism.

David Smith

The leading abstract expressionist sculptor was David Smith, a committed leftist -- he even visited the Soviet Union in 1935 -- and an ardent supporter of trade unions. Shortly before World War II, Smith made a set of bronze sculptures called "Medals for Dishonour," explicitly attacking capitalist and military interests. Although the abstract expressionists in general were influenced by surrealism, Smith was inspired by Picasso and the cubist movement. Many of Smith's pieces, such as "Cubi IX," are made of huge stainless steel cubes, pillars and other abstract geometric shapes welded together in unusual juxtapositions.

Seymour Lipton

Seymour Lipton was an abstract expressionist sculptor who worked in wood and bronze and developed new techniques for making rust-resistant sculptures. Lipton's technical training didn't come from art school but from his earlier training as a dentist -- he taught himself to apply the techniques of using dental tools to sculpture instead. Lipton's abstract expressionist sculptures look very different from David Smith's geometric designs. His "Winter Solstice II" makes use of sweeping curvilinear shapes with a vaguely bird-like appearance. Lipton's theme was frequently war.

Raoul Hague

Raoul Hague was one of the last sculptors to come from the abstract expressionist scene in New York City. He worked mostly in wood, creating large pieces through meticulous craftsmanship -- it is said that one work took him 25 years to complete. Hague's sculptures, even when completed, still bore a distinct resemblance to the tree trunks out of which he carved them and were also said to resemble stylized human torsos.

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