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Post-WWII Existentialism and Abstract Expressionism

on January 29, 2024

In many ways, the post-World War II Abstract Expressionist movement paralleled the philosophy of existentialism. The brutal and devastating realities of the war produced for many a profound sense of disillusionment. For some, this resulted in a worldview that emphasized the inherent absurdity of human existence. At its core, existentialism posited that individuals are responsible for creating their own meaning and purpose in what had become a seemingly indifferent universe.

abstract expressionism artist jackson pollock

By Jackson Pollock, 1952.

Abstract Expressionist artists (like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, etc.) embraced the existentialist ethos in their work—they rejected traditional conventions and explored the depths of human emotion and experience. Their bold, gestural paintings reflected the chaotic and unpredictable nature of existence that had produced a sense of existential angst and uncertainty for so many.

For Abstract Expressionists, the act of painting was a kind of existential exploration and a way to grapple with the complexities of the human condition and of existing as an individual surrounded by social norms and expectations. Through their spontaneous brushstrokes, vibrant colors, and emotional expression, Abstract Expressionists created as a way to make sense of the existential crisis of post-war existence and to assert some kind of individual freedom, choice, and authenticity.

abstract expressionism artist mark rothko

By Mark Rothko, 1949.
Also, the scale and intensity of the post-war Abstract Expressionist paintings compelled viewers to confront their own sense of existentialism. The boldness and expression of raw emotions inspired viewers to question the meaning of life and their place within the universe. In this way, Abstract Expressionism was a visual manifestation of existentialist philosophyit challenged people to confront the absurdity of existence and find meaning in the midst of chaos.

By Willem De Kooning

By Willem De Kooning, 1950.

It was a symbiotic relationship of sorts between the Abstract Expressionist movement and the philosophy of existentialismthey influenced and enriched each other. Through their revolutionary approach to artmaking, Abstract Expressionist artists captured the essence of existentialist thought, and in doing so invited viewers to contemplate the profound questions of our existence.


Pete Stein
Founder, Galerie Stein

Galerie Stein will be presenting several contemporary Abstract Expressionist artists both virtually at and in our gallery in Montreal in 2024.
Contact: Pete Stein at