Abstract Expressionism Art Movement: History, Artists, Artwork

Abstract Expressionism describes a style of abstract art developed in New York City in the 1940s and 50s by American painters. The movement developed following World War II, and is also known as the New York School. Being the first American artistic movement to achieve international influence, Abstract Expressionism effectively shifted the creative center of modern painting from Europe (specifically Paris) to New York. The diverse work created by the Abstract Expressionists defies classification as a single stylistic movement; instead, these artists were motivated by a desire to use abstraction to express powerful emotional or expressive themes. Abstract Expressionist paintings share broad gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, the impression of spontaneity and valued freedom.

Abstract expressionism was intended to include painters who used bold gestural expressionist techniques to attack their canvases and those who used fields of color and abstract forms to fill their canvases. Among others, related artists such as Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Franz Kline (1910–1962), Lee Krasner (1908–1984), Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), William Baziotes (1912–1963), Mark Rothko (1903–1970), Barnett Newman (1905–1970), Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974), Richard Pousette-Dart (1916–1992), David Smith (1906-1965) and Clyfford Still (1904–1980) advanced audacious formal inventions in a search for significant content. Because of their lofty ideals, such artists who formed The New York School are often referred to as the ‘heroic’ generation of American artists. For them, the art style was seen only as a physical manifestation of the actual work of art, which was the process of making the painting.

The Abstract Expressionist artists created monumentally sized works that served as mirrors of their psyches, defying traditional standards in both technique and subject matter and, in doing so, attempting to access universal inner sources. These artists valued the process highly and valued spontaneity and improvisation. Their work defies stylistic classification, but it can be grouped around two fundamental tendencies: focusing on dynamic, energetic gestures in contrast to a reflective, cerebral focus on more expansive fields of color. The imagery was abstract in both scenarios. The Abstract Expressionists advocated a highly abstract style even when representing imagery based on observable facts.

The diverse practices of this loosely affiliated group of artists were brought together by their commitment to daring formal innovation and their belief that art is a profoundly intimate form of emotional expression. The Social Realist and Regionalist conventions that were popular at the time were not enough for the Abstract Expressionists. The WPA Federal Art Project, a government-funded initiative that sponsored the visual arts in the United States, employed many artists connected to the movement as young adults during the Great Depression. Daring innovation was sparked by exposure to European modernism through museum exhibits, lectures, and interactions with émigré artists.

Surrealism was also a significant influence, focusing on myth, archetype, and the unconscious psyche.  The heritage of Surrealism influenced most abstract expressionists, a movement they adapted into a new style appropriate to the post-war climate of dread and trauma. Following World War II, Abstract Expressionists used these modernist trends to depict post-war trauma and anxiety uniquely American way. All of them were committed to art as expressions of the self, born out of intense emotion and universal themes. These New York artists’ success deprived Paris of its position as the forerunner of modern art and paved the way for American dominance of the global art scene.

The best-known examples of abstract expressionism are large-scale paintings that deviate from typical techniques, frequently pulling the canvas off the easel and utilizing unusual materials like house paint. Although Abstract Expressionism is commonly credited with advances in painting, its concepts profoundly impacted various other media, including drawing and sculpture.

History of Abstract Expressionism

Beginnings of Abstract Expressionism: 1930s – Early 1940s

The paradox that Abstract Expressionism’s origins were in the figurative art of the 1930s is just one of the movement’s numerous contradictions. The Great Depression left its mark on almost all artists who would become abstract painters in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. These artists developed as artists while working in styles influenced by the Regionalist and Social Realist movements. Most had abandoned such fashions by the late 1940s, but they had gained much from their earlier work. It strengthened their dedication to a form of work based on personal experience. Their time spent painting murals would inspire them to produce monumental-scale abstract paintings. Many diverse individuals came together through their experiences working for the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration, which made it simpler for them to form new groups in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the new style was being promoted.

However, exposure to and appropriation of European modernism laid the groundwork for the most cutting-edge American art. There were many places in New York where you could see European avant-garde art. When the Museum of Modern Art opened its doors in 1929, artists could view the director Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s fast-expanding collection. Additionally, they were exposed to ground-breaking short-term exhibitions of new work, including retrospectives of Matisse, Léger, and Picasso, Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism (1936–37). Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art, situated at New York University from 1927 until 1943, was another venue for viewing the most cutting-edge artwork. The Abstract Expressionists saw the artwork of Mondrian, Gabo, El Lissitzky, and others.

The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which served as the predecessor to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, debuted in 1939. Its collection of Kandinskys had already been seen in public several times before that time. Teaching was another means of spreading modernism’s lessons. Hans Hofmann (1880–1966), a German immigrant, rose to prominence as the United States’ most important contemporary art instructor, having a tremendous impact on both artists and critics.

Rise and Development of Abstract expressionism: Late 1940s – Mid 1950s

The rise of Abstract Expressionism has been attributed to the influence of European movements like Cubism and Surrealism , which reached New York in the 1930s and ’40s via museum exhibitions, academic institutions, and the stateside relocation of many major European artists due to World War II. This effectively shifted the art world’s focus from Europe (specifically Paris) to New York.

By the late 1940s, several factors were in place for the formation of the new movement, despite how diverse and unrelated the work of its artists was. With his transition from representational to large-scale, abstract works in the years immediately following World War II, Clyfford Still is credited with initiating the movement. Jackson Pollock created his distinctive drip technique in 1947. The year after, Willem de Kooning held a significant exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery, where he debuted his Women’s paintings. He is renowned for removing composition, light, arrangement, and relationships from his female portraits such that figuration became abstract.

With the painting Onement I, Barnett Newman had his artistic breakthrough, while Mark Rothko started creating the “multi-form” paintings that would become the important works of his mature phase. American Painting Today – 1950, a Metropolitan Museum show of contemporary art, was boycotted in 1951 by 18 like-minded artists. They were then persuaded into posing for a photo with Life magazine and given the moniker “The Irascibles”. The work made the term Abstract Expressionism widely known and gave the movement a sense of unity and purpose.

The Irascibles, 1950
“The Irascibles”, 1950, Source: Wikimedia and Getty Images


Front row: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko; middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin; back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne.

The End of Abstract expressionism- Late 1950s

The style had outlived its usefulness in other respects by the middle of the 1950s. The movement’s greatest successes were frequently based on a struggle between chaos and control. This had a limited number of possible outcomes. Some painters, like Newman and Rothko, had developed a minimal style with little opportunity for progress; if they’d taken a different path, their striking trademarks would have had a different grandeur.

Younger artists watching this generation’s evolution were less convinced by artists rumored to produce one sublime expression after another, frequently in series, and they became weary of their heroic attitudes. Additionally, homosexual artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Ellsworth Kelly had little in common with the macho aesthetics and sexist jargon of the New York School. Some, like Johns, would take inspiration from the Abstract Expressionists and expand their interest in the auto graphic gesture by inserting elements like irony, ambiguity, and reticence that the previous generation would never have tolerated. Others, like Warhol, weren’t as interested in street life as they were in the high aspirations of hard-drinking womanizers like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. By the late 1950s, a new generation was poised for success, and Abstract Expressionism had utterly lost its position at the heart of the critical conversation.

Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism

The characteristics of Abstract expressionism include: the impression of spontaneity, gestural brush-strokes, personal expression, and valuing freedom.

Gestural Brush-Strokes

The objective of gestural painting is not what is painted. What matters is how it is painted. Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionist painters used paint to a surface instinctively and physically by dripping, pouring, splattering, wiping, and dumping paint rather than in a controlled, predetermined manner. The paintings are a record of the action; they are an aesthetic reminder of something sincere, spontaneous, peculiar, and unrestrained. At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act.

Valuing freedom

value free, spontaneous, and personal emotional expression, and they use a wide range of techniques and execution methods to achieve this goal, with a particular emphasis on the use of paint’s changeable physical nature to elicit expressive qualities (e.g., sensuousness, dynamism, violence, mystery, lyricism).

The impression of spontaneity

In a psychological improvisation akin to Surrealist automatism, they emphasise the haphazard and spontaneous application of paint to use art to represent the creative unconscious. They demonstrate a rejection of conventionally structured compositions made up of distinct and separable parts in favor of a single undifferentiated field, network, or other picture existing in unstructured space.

Personal expression

The paintings fill large canvases to give the aforementioned visual effects both monumentality and engrossing power. The large canvas gave room for artists to express themselves fully.

Abstract Expressionists

The major Abstract expressionism artists include Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Lee Krasner. These artists believed that art is an adventure into an unknown world of the imagination which is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock


  • Born: January 28, 1912 Cody, Wyoming, U.S.
  • Died: August 11, 1956 (aged 44) Springs, New York, U.S.
  • Education: Art Students League of New York
  • Known for: Action Painting, Abstract Expressionism

Growing up rough and uneasy in the American West molded Jackson Pollock into the bullish person he would become. Later, several factors combined to help Pollock develop his mature style: his time creating realist murals in the 1930s taught him the importance of painting on a big scale; surrealism offered means to express the unconscious, and cubism helped him grasp picture space.

To combat his alcoholism, Jackson Pollock started seeing a Jungian therapist in 1939, and the analyst pushed him to make drawings. Jungian psychology was compelling in its assertion of the collective unconscious. These would subsequently serve as inspiration for his paintings and helped Pollock recognize that his works weren’t only reflections of his thoughts but also perhaps represented the horror of all contemporary humanity living in the shadow of nuclear war.

The works of Thomas Hart Benton, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró influenced Jackson Pollock. He began employing alkyd enamels, a type of synthetic resin-based paint that was new at the time. According to Pollock, using standard colors rather than artists’ paints was “a natural progression out of a need.” He applied paint with stiffened brushes, sticks, and even basting syringes. Jackson Pollock gained notoriety his signature technique, dripping and pouring paint onto huge canvases laid flat on the floor.. One of the origins of the phrase “action painting” is supposed to be Pollock’s method of pouring and dripping paint. Pollock could create palimpsest paintings in his distinctive style through his preferred tool and technique. He made a new dimension by being able to view and apply paint to his canvases from all directions by rejecting the standard of painting on a vertical surface.

The critics of this extreme kind of abstraction were divided: some lauded the spontaneity of the production, while others mocked the unexpected results. Sometimes they could allude to the life force inherent in nature, while other times, they could allude to the trappings of man—in his body, his worried psyche, and the newly terrifying contemporary world. Continuing to evade the viewer’s search for figurative elements in his paintings, Pollock abandoned titles and started numbering his works.

Jackson Pollock’s most notable works include Number 17A (1948), No. 5, 1948 (1948), Mural on Indian Red Ground (1950), Autumn Rhythm (1950), Convergence (1952), Blue Poles (Number 11, 1952) (1952), and The Deep (1953).

Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, two Color Field painters, developed Jackson Pollock’s method of staining the raw canvas. “All-over composition” became a defining feature of Frank Stella’s 1960s-era compositions. Allan Kaprow, a member of The Happenings, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, and many other modern artists have carried on Pollock’s attention on the creative process; they were affected more by his approach to the technique than by the aesthetics of his work.

Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning


  • Born: April 24, 1904 Rotterdam, Netherlands
  • Died: March 19, 1997 (aged 92) East Hampton, New York[1]
  • Nationality: Dutch, American
  • Known for: Abstract expressionism

Willem de Kooning was one of the most well-known and acclaimed Abstract Expressionist artists, and his works epitomize the movement’s vigorous, gestural manner. He may have established a radical abstract painting style that combined Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism more than any of his contemporaries. De Kooning never separated his paintings of figurative subjects—notably women—from his abstractions, while many of his contemporaries switched from figuration to abstraction. He insisted that space and the figure-ground relationship were De Kooning’s true subjects.

In contrast to most of his contemporaries, Willem De Kooning never entirely gave up painting the human figure. He uses a distinctive fusion of gestural abstraction and figuration in his paintings of women. De Kooning was a master at ambiguously merging figures and ground in his paintings while dismembering, re-assembling, and distorting his figures due to Picasso’s Cubism, which had a significant influence on him.

Willem De Kooning is renowned for constantly altering his canvases. However, he frequently left them with a sense of dynamic incompleteness, as if the figures were still in motion, settling and defining themselves. His works perfectly illustrate Harold Rosenberg’s description of action painting, which states that a painting is more of an event than a finished piece in the conventional sense. Willem de Kooning most notable artworks include: Seated Woman (c.1940), Pink Angels (c.1945), Untitled (1948-49), Excavation (1950), Woman III (1951-53), Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point (1963), Woman and Child (1967), and Untitled VI (1983).

Throughout his career, Willem de Kooning used gestural style alternating between abstraction, figuration, and landscapes in various ways. His constant search for new forms and themes made his overall output more varied than most of his contemporaries. De Kooning’s unusual connection with a popular culture influenced a wide range of post-war artists, from James Rosenquist’s Pop Art to Robert Rauschenberg’s Neo-Dadaism. Contemporary painters like Cecily Brown have looked into the gestural sexuality of his later paintings.

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko


  • Born: September 25, 1903. Daugavpils, Russian Empire (now Latvia)
  • Died: February 25, 1970 (aged 66). New York City, U.S.
  • Nationality: American
  • Alma mater: Yale University
  • Known for: Painting
  • Movement: Abstract expressionism, Color Field

Mark Rothko, a prominent member of the New York School of painters, experimented with various artistic mediums before settling on his iconic 1950s pattern of supple, rectangular figures floating over a stained field of color. Mark Rothko created his first paintings using luminous rectangles of color. He was heavily influenced by mythology and philosophy, and he insisted that his work was rich in ideas and content. His work was also greatly influenced by Nietzsche, Greek mythology, and his Russian-Jewish roots. Rothko, a fervent supporter of revolutionary social thinking and freedom of expression, also outlined his opinions in several articles and critical reviews.

Mark Rothko’s paintings was profoundly loaded with emotional meaning that he conveyed through various forms that moved from figurative to abstract. He believed in the simple expression of the complex thought.

Early paintings by Rothko that combined Expressionism with Surrealism included landscapes, still lifes, figure studies, and portraits. His efforts to find fresh ways to express himself resulted in his Color Field paintings, which used shimmering color to evoke spirituality.

Throughout his life, Mark Rothko remained committed to the social revolutionaries’ principles. He was mainly in favor of complete artistic freedom, which he believed the market to be undermining. Because of this conviction, he frequently disagreed with the art world’s establishment, publicly responding to critics and occasionally turning off commissions, sales, and exhibitions.

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still


  • Born: November 30, 1904. Grandin, North Dakota
  • Died: June 23, 1980 (aged 75). Baltimore, Maryland
  • Nationality: American
  • Education: Spokane University, Washington State University
  • Known for: Painting
  • Movement: Abstract expressionism, Color Field painting

Clyfford Still is regarded as one of the foremost Color Field painters; he developed his distinctive style in San Francisco between 1946 and 1950 while lecturing at the California School of Fine Arts. His non-figurative paintings are non-objective and primarily concerned with juxtaposing various colors and surfaces in different formations. He was the first to break through to a new and radically abstract style devoid of overt subject matter, despite not being as well known as some of his New York School contemporaries.

Clyfford Still’s color arrangements are less regular than those of Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, who arranged their colors in fundamental ways (Newman used thin lines on large fields of color, while Rothko used nebulous rectangles). He was one of the few painters to merge the techniques of gestural action paintings with color field paintings. His angular flashes of color give the appearance that the painting’s top layer of color has been “ripped” off, exposing the hues beneath. Another difference between Still’s work and Newman’s and Rothko’s is how the paint is applied to the canvas. While Rothko and Newman used relatively flat colors and thin paint, Still uses a thick impasto, which results in subtle variation and shimmering shades throughout the painting surfaces. His enormous, mature works evoke nature’s most intense and enigmatic forms and phenomena; ancient stalagmites, caverns, and greenery in darkness and light give his work poetic richness and depth.

By 1947, Clyfford Still had started using palette knives to create a sizable color field, a style that he would increase and perfect throughout the rest of his career. 1957-D No. 1, 1957 (below), primarily black and yellow with patches of white and a little red, is one of Still’s well-known works. Though his paintings have the propensity to utilize darker shades, these four colors—as well as variations on them (purples, dark blues)—dominate his work. Other notable works include: Untitled(Indian Houses, Nespelem) (1936), Untitled (c.1935), 1944-N No.2 (also known as ‘Red Flash on Black Field’) (1944), 1948-C (1948), and Untitled (1974).

Clyfford Still 1957-D No. 1, 1957.
Clyfford Still 1957-D No. 1, 1957.


Clyfford Still mature paintings use color to portray epic battles between man and nature that take place on a grand scale. According to him, these are not typical paintings because “they are life and death merging in terrible union. They light a fire; through them I breathe again, clutch a golden cord, and find my own revelation.” Clyfford Still would go on to have an impact on the second generation of Color Field painters because he believed in the moral value of art in the confusing modern world.

Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner


  • Born: October 27, 1908. New York City, U.S.
  • Died: June 19, 1984 (aged 75). New York City, U.S.
  • Education: Cooper Union National Academy of Design Hans Hofmann
  • Known for: Painting, collage
  • Movement: Abstract expressionism

Lee Krasner is classified as an abstract expressionist because of her abstract, gestural, and expressive paintings, collage paintings, charcoal drawings, and occasionally mosaics.  She frequently tore apart her sketches and paintings to do her collage works. Due to her critical attitude, she often edited or destroyed an entire series of works; as a result, her corpus of surviving work is relatively modest. Abrams released her catalog raisonné in 1995; it contains a list of her 599 known works.

Lee Krasner’s fluctuating personality is evident in all of her work, which has caused critics and academics to draw divergent conclusions about her and her body of work. Krasner frequently switches between open form and hard-edged shape, vibrant color and a monochromatic palette, and traditional structure and baroque motion. She resisted developing a distinct, recognizable style throughout her career and instead embraced change by frequently changing her work’s mood, subject matter, texture, materials, and arrangements. She distinguished herself from other abstract expressionists by continually switching up her working methods since many of them embraced fixed identities and techniques of depiction. Despite these striking variations, the gestural manner, texture, rhythm, and use of organic imagery in her paintings serve as recognizable hallmarks. Interests in the self, nature and contemporary life are recurring topics in Krasner’s artwork. She frequently avoided addressing the iconography of her art. Instead, she stressed the significance of her biography since she insisted that her unique personality and emotional condition shaped her work.

As a prominent and ambitious artist in New York City during the height of Abstract Expressionism, Lee Krasner’s career was frequently hampered by the male-dominated art world and her supportive role as Jackson Pollock’s wife. Jackson Pollock is considered the most significant American painter of the postwar period. The fusion of abstract form and psychological substance that signaled the beginning of Abstract Expressionism was spearheaded by Krasner. Her original Little Image series from the late 1940s, her intense collages from the 1950s, and later her enormous, vividly colored canvases from the 1960s were all the result of her ambition to change her style, or what she called “breaks.” In the 1970s, feminist art historians “rediscovered” Krasner, who lived to see a better appreciation of her work and career, which is still expanding today.

Lee Krasner’s distinctive, expressive style on many of her canvases was crucial to the development of Abstract Expressionism. Her perseverance in the face of pervasive sexism in the New York art scene has also inspired later generations of female artists. A major retrospective of her work held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1983 further solidified her reputation.

Abstract Expressionism Artwork

The major Abstract expressionist paintings and artworks include:
1957-D-No. 1 (1957), Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950), Excavation (1950), Vir heroicus sublimis (1950-51), and Mountains and Sea (1952).

1957-D-No. 1

1957-D-No. 1


  • Artist: Clyfford Still
  • Year: 1957
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: 113 × 159 in
  • Location: Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

1957-D-No. 1 by Clyfford Still is dramatic in scale and starkly contrasted in hue. Each jagged shock of yellow and beige fluidly interconnects with the dense black surface, demonstrating Still’s the ability to create compositions that are visually complicated yet balanced. The paradox of the piece is found in the manner that the contrast between black and color produces an electric tension between expanding and contracting space.

Like many other painters, Clyfford Still mainly focused on figurative painting in the early 1940s, conjuring gloomy, dark images in somber hues. By the middle of the 1940s, the dashes and jagged colored lines appearing on top of his paintings signaled a change in his style. As a non-objective painter interested in juxtaposing various colors and textures into various shapes, this signaled his transition toward Abstract Expressionism.

Despite being one of the most well-known Color Field painters, Still’s fiery bursts and crackly lines of bright hues that evoke gashes and splits set them apart from, for example, Rothko’s more straightforward color washes or Newman’s narrow lines. This is demonstrated in 1957-D-No. 1, a sizable piece that evokes the natural forms and phenomena of cave stalagmites, caverns, and other enigmatic aspects that exist just beyond the level of our everyday conscious awareness. The interactions between the foreground and background elements in Still’s compositions remind one of life’s dance between light and dark, which Still preferred to portray as “life and death merging in frightening unity.”

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)




  • Artist: Jackson Pollock
  • Year: 1950
  • Medium: Enamel paint on canvas
  • Dimensions: 266.7 cm (105.0 in) × 525.8 cm (207.0 in)
  • Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The artwork is a prime example of Jackson Pollock’s well-known drip paintings, which were created by pouring, splattering, and physically applying paint to a canvas lying on the ground from above. A career turning point for Pollock, this method of using gesture, line, texture, and composition to communicate an inner emotional turmoil also helped popularize the New York School of painters. The term “action painting” was first used by critic Rosenberg about these works of art. And this improbable union of chance and control amounted to the development of abstract expressionism.

Jackson Pollock also built up thick, poetic compositions made of intricate skeins of the line using sticks, trowels, knives, and anything other than the typical painter’s tool. In this all-over composition, every part of the surface is equally important; there is no hierarchy of pieces or focal point. The canvas was flat on the floor as the artist worked on it, constantly moving around it as he applied paint and worked from all four corners.

Size is significant: The width of Autumn Rhythm is 207 inches. It takes on the proportions of an area and envelops the viewer and the artist who produced it. The piece serves as a documentation of how it came to be. Its vibrant color lines and bouncy, heavy, graceful, arcing, swirling, and pooling sensations are tangible results of the highly physical choreography used by the artist to apply the paint using his innovative techniques. Being spontaneous was also essential.




  • Artist: Willem de Kooning
  • Year: 1950
  • Medium: Oil Paint
  • Dimensions: 2.06 m x 2.57 m
  • Location: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Excavation is one of Willem de Kooning’s most well-known works and a perfect example of his Abstract Expressionist style. His largest painting up to that date, the work exemplifies the Dutch-born innovator’s style, with its expressive brushwork and distinctive organization of space into sliding planes with open contours. According to the artist, the point of departure for the painting was an image of women working in a rice field in Bitter Rice, a 1949 Neorealist film by Italian director Giuseppe de Santis.

The mobile structure of hooked calligraphic lines defines anatomical parts—bird and fish shapes, human noses, eyes, teeth, necks, and jaws—that seem to dance across the painted surface, revealing the particular tension between abstraction and figuration that is inherent in de Kooning’s work. The original white pigment has yellowed over the years, diluting somewhat the flashes of red, blue, yellow, and pink that punctuate the composition. Aptly titled, the painting reflects de Kooning’s technically masterful painting process: an intensive building up of the surface and scraping down of its paint layers, often for months, until the desired effect was achieved.

Willem de Kooning says, “I paint this manner because I can keep throwing more and more things in – drama, fury, anguish, love, a figure, a horse, and my thoughts about space.” De Kooning would next remove, scrape, and add paint with his trademark chaos and deliberateness until he discovered what he was looking for after this frenetic piling up of imagery. The finished product offered a genuine excavation of the artist’s thoughts and actions at that precise moment.

Willem de Kooning, who frequently used broad brushstrokes and light, pastel palettes, is still regarded as one of the most influential expressive “action painters.” He looked for experience authenticity in both the creation of his paintings and the depiction of the experience on canvas.

Vir heroicus sublimis

Vir heroicus sublimis


  • Artist: Barnett Newman
  • Year: 1950–1951
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: 242.3 cm × 541.7 cm (95+3⁄8 in × 213+1⁄4 in)
  • Location: Museum of Modern Art, New York

Barnett Newman skillfully divided the area with vertical stripes in various tones of clashing colors to create his nearly monochrome, enormous color fields. The artist referred to these vertical lines as “Zips,” and they frequently appeared in his color field paintings, giving them a finished, vibrant appearance. A field that “brings life to the other fields, just as the other fields bring life to this so-called line” is how he defined the zip. In other words, the zip is a crucial component that unifies the entire structure. It directs you through the scene and keeps you in the vast visual field. Newman described his reductivism as one means of “freeing ourselves of the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend, freeing ourselves from the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, and myth that have been the devices of Western European painting.”

Barnett Newman thought that this condensed version of his characteristic theme might convey human attributes that have precedents in ancient art. He was referred to be a Color Field painter because he wanted viewers to stand near his works so they could take them in completely. He believed that the intimacy the picture produced was similar to the chemistry that would naturally arise from two people meeting. Newman believed that there is no such thing as a good painting about nothing

Although the grandeur and simplicity of Newman’s work were vital to the movement, this interaction between the painting and the observer stood out. A Conceptualism-related artist named Mel Bochner recalled seeing it at MoMA in the late 1960s and understanding that its size and color produced a new form of engagement between art and the viewer. Additionally, a completely new type of experience was created by the painting’s reflection of the viewer’s reflection in itself.” Similar ideas of a simplified interaction between the painting and the viewer would eventually appear in the work of the Minimalists.

Mountains and Sea

Mountains and Sea


  • Artist: Helen Frankenthaler
  • Year: 1952
  • Medium: Oil and charcoal on canvas
  • Dimensions: 220 cm × 297.8 cm (87 in × 117.2 in)
  • Location: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Through her friend, the critic Clement Greenberg, Helen Frankenthaler was exposed to the New York art scene, and she spent the summer of 1950 studying under Hans Hoffman. When Jackson Pollock’s first exhibition opened at the Betty Parsons Gallery, she was there and commented: “It was there. I wanted to live in this land. I had to live there, and master the language.” Which she did, working as a painter for the next 60 years.

One of Frankenthaler’s most significant pieces, Mountains and Sea (1952), was one of her earliest important paintings, completed at only twenty-three. The artwork displays the artist’s move away from conventional mediums and surfaces and the beginning of her distinctive approach. She thinned oils (and later moved to acrylics) with turpentine to the consistency of watercolor rather than treating paint as a layer meant to sit on top of the canvas. She would then spread out vast swathes of unprimed canvas on the floor and apply the liquid washes using a highly physical dance of pouring, dripping, sponging, rolling, and mopping. The paint would completely penetrate the canvas, producing an integrated, transparent look, giving the effect of staining. This method gave the artist control while allowing for spontaneity, much like the other Abstract Expressionists.

Mountains and Sea, motivated by Frankenthaler’s journey to Nova Scotia, demonstrates her pursuit of brilliance on the canvases. Her art, which has come to be associated with some of the most creative Color Field experiments to emerge from the movement, would continue to be inspired by the landscape.

Types of Abstract Expressionism

There were two major groups of abstract expressionism: the action painters, who used expressive brushwork, and the color field painters, who painted vast swathes of a single color.

Action painting

Action painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning used large brushes to make sweeping gesture patterns and painted in a loose, improvisatory style. Famously, Pollock put his canvas on the ground and danced around it, dripping paint from the can or trailing it from a brush or a stick. These painters used this method to express their innermost impulses visually.

Color Field painting

Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still were in the second group. They produced straightforward compositions with vast areas of color meant to evoke a contemplative or meditative response in the viewer since they were passionately interested in religion and myth. This approach to painting developed around 1960 is characterized by artists using large areas of more or less a single flat color.

What Art Movements Influenced Abstract Expressionism?

Existing modernist movements like Surrealism, Fauvism and Synthetic Cubism that evolved throughout the early twentieth century in France and Germany influenced American Abstract Expressionism. Due to their shared interest in automatic or subconscious creation, surrealism and abstract expressionist paintings significantly influenced one another.

What Art Movements Were Influenced by Abstract Expressionism?

In the 1940s and 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was at its height, and publications and traveling exhibitions allowed for global exposure to the paintings. By the 1960s, Pop Art and Minimalism had begun to dethrone Abstract Expressionism as the leading artistic movement. The serious, lofty goals of the Abstract Expressionists and their desire to depict transcendence and the sublime in art had grown old to the new generation of artists.

Although there may be similarities between Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism completely disregarded the painting method and subjective meaning at the heart of Abstract Expressionism. Since self-expression was not the point of minimalism, many practitioners worked to capture the essence of a shape or object. Pop Art, also a response to Abstract Expressionism, supported New York City’s continued development as a global cultural and artistic center.

Consider the work of Frank Bowling, a painter who immigrated to New York in the middle of the 1960s and was significantly impacted by Abstract Expressionism there. Bowling continued to paint in this manner throughout his career, despite the prevailing trends of the time. Additionally, in recent years, female Abstract Expressionists like Lee Krasner began to receive the recognition they rightfully deserve after being long eclipsed by their male peers. Women of Abstract Expressionism, a 2016 exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, honored the frequently overlooked or undervalued female artists who contributed to this revolutionary art style.

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