Abstract Expressionism: Origin Story, Characteristics, Examples, Most Famous Artists, & Major Facts

Developed around the 1940s in New York City, the Abstract Expressionism movement is an art movement that is most known for having no subject attached to the artwork. In its truest form, an abstract expressionist art simply focuses on the processes involved in making the objects instead of the object in itself. Thus it contains subjects with no true purpose.

The abstract expressionists that emerged following the end of World War II contributed immensely in placing New York City on the map as one of the biggest capitals of the art world. What are some of the major characteristics of Abstract Expressionism? And which artists contributed the most to the development of this art style?

Worldhistoryedu.com explores the origin story, examples, artists and major styles of abstract expressionism.

Origin Story of Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism | Image (top left to bottom): Arshile Gorky’s  The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944), James Brooks’ ‘Boon’ Oil (1957), Jacksnon Pollock’s Blue Poles (also known as Number 11, 1952)

World War II left many famous European capitals, including Paris, which was undoubtedly the capital of culture and arts for several years prior to the war, in complete ruin. The movement of artists, writers and sculptors across the Atlantic to North America contributed in making places like New York City emerge as the new hub of culture and art.  Famous artists like Kay Sage, Max Ernst, Jimmy Ernst, Leo Castelli, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian and Yves Tanguy all fled Europe to New York. It was from those artists, including the influence they had on other artists in New York, that gave rise to the abstract expressionism movement.

What are the Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism?

Many art historians state that the main characteristic of Abstract Expressionism is that it blends intense emotional component with an anti-figurative look of say Futurism and Synthetic Cubism. This art style goes against established conventional art style; and for this reason, some critics saw it as a rebellious art style preferred by anarchist painter.

Its idiosyncratic and sometimes nihilistic elements were favored by artists looking for unconventional styles. On the other hand, some historians have described it to encompass artworks that cannot be categorized as either abstract art or expressionist art.

An abstract expressionist tries to capture the spirit of the object rather than the physical features of the object, according to California abstract expressionist Jay Meuser. Artists in the abstract expressionism movement look for a non-objective style that involves high levels of spontaneity. While painting, they try to hold onto the feeling of spontaneity. This does not mean that abstract expressionists do not plan or go through any thought process. It will be impossible to complete some of the large artworks in this movement without any form of planning.

Abstract expressionists are aided by their ability to freely allow the subjects to emerge spontaneously from the unconscious. This has made some to state that the abstract art style in its truest form is simply expressionism laced with spiritual and unconscious elements.

Abstract Expressionism

Evolution and Growth of Abstract Expressionism in America

Abstract expressionism became extremely popular in the 1950s, even to extent of rubbing shoulders with American social realism. The latter, which was influenced by a number of Mexican muralists (such as David Alfaro Siqueros and Diego Rivera) and the Great Depression of the 1930s, could not arise during and after WWII because of the political climate. The climate then was a bit toxic for most forms of social protests, causing Social realism artworks to dwindle and receive less coverage compared to the 1930s.

While social realism dropped slightly, abstract expressionism arose during that same period, starting around the early 1940s, especially in New York. Abstract expressionist could also survive the McCarthy era, a time when accusations of subversion and treason were thrown left, right and center against Americans. Abstract expressionists thrived because their idiosyncratic and subjectless paintings were perceived as apolitical. This made totally abstract subject matters safe bets for numerous art galleries, including the Manhattan, New York City gallery, The Art of This Century Gallery (1942-1947).

And even if the subjects were political, the artist could easily hide them under layers and layers of what many would perceive as meaninglessness, with only few art experts being able to decipher the content.


Clyfford Still – one of the most famous Abstract Expressionist painters of all time

Abstract expressionists tend to place emphasis on spontaneity in the creation of emotionally charged and non-objective artworks that often times emerge from the subconscious

American abstract expressionism began to emerge around the early 1940s in New York City. It blended modernism with art styles from Surrealism, Fauvism, Cubism, as well from artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Miró.

Modernists such as Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky, and John D. Graham also had tremendous influence on American abstract expressionism. Artists such Pollock and Kooning drew some amount of inspiration from Hofmann and John D. Graham.

The works of famous Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and French artist Fernand Léger played a crucial role in the development of abstract expressionism.

Did you know: Austrian-Mexican painter and sculptor Wolfgang Paalen, who was a former leading member of the Surrealist movement, had immense influence on abstract artists and abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Martha Graham?

Famous artists that helped make abstract expressionism a success story

Abstract Expressionist artists

Famous Abstract Expressionist artists | Image (L-R): Willem de Kooning, Wassily Kandinsky, Helen Frankenthaler, and Jackson Pollock

The abstract expressionism movement comprises many Modernists and unconventional painters, collagist, sculptors, filmmakers, poets, and photographers.

  • For example, sculptors like Dorothy Dehner, Herbert Ferber, Isamu Noguchi and David Smith were instrumental in the development of abstract expressionism in sculpting.
  • Poets – Frank O’Hara
  • Photographers – Aaron Siskind and Fred McDarrah
  • Filmmakers – Robert Frank
  • Due to the successes of their paintings, painters such as Pollock, Anne Ryan, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Martha Graham, Mark Tobey, Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky, Jay Meuser, and Willem de Kooning are considered the leading figures in the movement. Similarly artists such as John Chamberlain, Mark di Suvero and James Rosati all contributed immensely to development of this art style.

Art Styles Influenced by the Abstract Expressionism movement

Works by pioneers in the Abstract Expressionism movement – such as Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still, de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Rothko – allowed other modern art styles to emerge. Examples of those styles include the Anti-Formalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Feminist art movement.

It’s been stated that Abstract expressionists created an enabling environment where women artists engaged in the making of modern art got more recognition.

Barnett Newman and Abstract Expressionism

Did you know:  Abstract Expressionism movement influenced the development of Tachisme, Lyrical abstraction, Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimalism, and Neo-expressionism movements of the 1960s and 1970s?

Support from galleries and art critics

Many paintings and artworks of Modernists and Abstract Expressionists were displayed by some galleries such as the Charles Egan Gallery, the Sidney Janis Gallery, the Betty Parsons Gallery, Kootz Gallery, and The Art of This Century. a host of other galleries.

The biggest critics in the abstract expressionist movement were Robert Motherwell, patron critic Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and artist Barnett Newman.

Clement Greenberg preferred Jackson Pollock and color field painters such as Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Hans Hofmann. Harold Rosenberg, on the other hand, preferred action painters like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and seminal paintings of Arshile Gorky,

The likes of Meyer Schapiro and Leo Steinberg, both art historians and art critics, also supported abstract expressionism. Other later critics of the style include Michael Fried and Robert Hughes.

Abstract Expressionism

Famous Modernist Art Techniques in Abstract Expressionism

The art techniques used by abstract expressionist can be limitless considering the fact that goal of the movement is to produce non-objective art. Therefore, artists have the freedom to develop as many innovative art techniques as they like. Here are three common art techniques often used by Abstract Expressionists:

Action Painting

Often used interchangeably with abstract expressionism, the Action Painting technique was coined by Harold Rosenberg in 1952, who opined that the canvas was “an arena in which to act”.

In action painting, the object did not matter per se, instead it was the process and work and the struggle that mattered. It was the means that mattered; the artist’s movement of the painter’s brush; how the paint dripped onto the canvas or; how the paint is thrown/splashed/stained on the canvas. Action Painting does not lend itself to complete explanation since it comes from the unconscious before it is manifested. Examples of artists that used this technique are:

  • Jackson Pollock – the energetic action painter produced emotionally charged paintings.
  • De Kooning – some of his paintings were violent in some way – especially in his Women series – for example Woman V
  • Franz Kline – action painter who relied on spontaneous and depth in his style – pays attention to the process, including the movement of the brushstrokes on the canvas

Color field

The key in Color Field technique is being true to the picture plane. Painters using this technique try to avoid the use of unnecessary rhetoric. This can be seen in Barnett Newman’s Vir heroicus sublimis.

Color Field also frequently focuses on the psychological use of color. It deploys articulated colors and avoids using recognizable images. The style is the end in itself as artists here keep their cool. The end result is a sensual and deep painting that is different from the high emotional energy and gestures used in action painting. Famous artists that use the Color Field of abstract expressionism include Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnet Newman, Clement Greenberg, and Adolph Gottlieb.

Robert Motherwell and Hans Hofmann are most known for blending the color field and action painting techniques.

Interesting Facts about Abstract Expressionism

  • Some art philosophers have stated that there exist some amount of similarity between abstract expressionism and the styles used by early 20th century Russian artists such as Wassily Kandinsky.
  • Robert Coates, the famous art critic of the 1940s, was one of the first people to use the term “abstract expressionism” in America. However, about two decades prior to that, Herwarth Walden’s art and literary magazine Der Sturn had used the term “German Expressionism”.
  • Many art historians consider Abstract Expressionism as the predecessor of surrealism, an art style that relies heavily on creating subjects (mostly illogical) activated from the unconscious mind.
  • While artists in the United States continued to add to the movement, artists in Europe were not as eager as their American counterparts. Europeans continued in Surrealism, Dada, Cubism and Tachisme.
  • Although the hub of the abstract expressionism movement largely emerged from New York City, other cities across the country hosted renowned abstract artists. The San Francisco Bay are of California is the name that comes to the mind the most.
  • Examples of famous galleries that housed and promoted abstract expressionist include The Art of This Century, Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Julien Levy Gallery and Pierre Matisse Gallery.
  • The art style Tachisme is generally considered the closest thing to abstract expressionism in Europe.
  • During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency was involved in the promotion of abstract expressionism. The U.S. government saw it a style that epitomizes what the U.S. is all about – i.e. freedom, democracy, free thought, and free markets. The CIA therefore promoted those sorts of paintings in in order to undermine the Soviet Union’s oppressive styles such as socialist realist. Also significant amount of financing and support came from the Congress for Cultural Freedom between 1950 and 1967.

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