Abstract Expressionism

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Abstract Expressionism
Hans Hofmann: The Door abstract expressionism artwork by Hans Hoffmann

Hans Hofmann: The Door by Hans Hoffmann

Era: NA
Known Names Gestural Abstraction
The New York School
Influencers Jackson Pollock
Willem de Kooning
Barnett Newman
Address NA

Top Picture: Yellow, Gray, Black by Jackson Pollock


The artists who practiced Abstract Expressionism did not really call themselves a movement. They were simply young artists that reshaped the lessons they were taught into something all their own.

Abstract Expressionism

Although Abstract Expressionism as an art movement that flourished in the 1940s its influences started in the preceding decade,  the artists that started this movement were never really an association but more of a group of like-minded artists making new rules. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell pushed for a new form of sophistication in artistic content. For these artists, subject matter was everything while technique and classic form were less important. This art form, also known as The New York School, was born out of a desire for a less formal mode of artistic practice. Its main purpose was to take the art world in directions that it had never gone before in mainstream culture. It introduced new content, context and subject matter to conventional methods of painting. The artists who founded this radical form of art focused on gestures and improvisation. These artists were young and idealistic enough to try something new in their craft. Social changes in the United States and a shift in artistic tastes internationally helped to usher in this movement. The Great Depression of the 1930s created Regionalism and Social Realism that focused on politics. The artists who sought to find new artistic avenues needed a way to contest if not escape these forms of political and provincial design. They found that following European modernism proved to be an acceptable method for introducing new artistic styles to American museums. Establishments like The Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Living Art exposed art students to cutting-edge art from abroad. Styles such as Cubism, Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism grew popular with the MoMA opening in 1929. The Museum of Living art directly influenced impressionable artists while it was housed at New York State University. These museums displayed the works of Matisse, Leger and Picasso as well as Mondrian, Gabo and Lissitzky. Myth and archaic art were the inspiration for subject matter in the early days of the Abstract Expressionism movement. Pollock and Motherwell both turned to ancient and primitive cultures to find a start for their work. They sought to evoke work that had little to no premeditation with pictographic and biomorphic elements. Motherwell used Jungian psychology as a cornerstone for collective unconsciousness in his work. For Expressionist artists, the creative process was more important than the thought involved in producing their work. The work these artists made was meant to be an immediate and direct declaration of their identity. Each piece of work was a signature creation where directness was the driving force behind the inspiration. Pollock developed a technique of painting that involved pouring and dripping paints onto a canvas in 1947. De Kooning also used a charged and highly energetic technique that alternated between gestural and figurative work. The art produced by these techniques was shocking to the public in its scale and subject matter. Newman was another artist, among others, that took the movement in new directions by developing his own style. His goal was to free artistic practice from memory, association, nostalgia and myth. In his style, Newman used simple, large-format color-dominated fields. He wanted to move away from the familiar Western European style of painting to show a more elemental form of art. He sought to use reductivism as a new technique of painting while at the same time employing scale to impress the viewers of his work. The first generation of the Gestural Painting movement spread widely from 1943 through the 1950s. It sparked an idea that artistic painting can and should move from the traditional to the individual. Though it was influenced by European classics, the movement established New York as a mecca for fresh and innovative art work.


  • Birth by Jackson Pollock, c. 1941
  • Dionysius by Barnett Newman, 1949
  • Pagan Void by Barnett Newman, 1946
  • Seated Woman by Willem de Kooning, 1952
  • Woman by Willem de Kooning, 1944

Fun Facts

  • Jackson Pollock became known as “Jack the Dripper” because of his technique.
  • Gestural Painting is divided into two categories known as Action Painting and Color Field Painting.
  • Each artist that started the Gestural Painting movement continued to practice the style unchanged until the end of their life.

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Some Examples of Abstract Expressionism

Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow On White And Red), 1949 abstract expressionism artwork by Mark Rothko

Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow On White And Red), 1949

Untitled, 1957 abstract expressionism artwork by Franz Kline

Untitled, 1957

False Start, 1959 abstract expressionism artwork by Jasper Johns

False Start, 1959