Abstract expressionism is the term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and 1950s, often characterised by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity
- Introduction to abstract expressionism
- Abstract expressionist artists in focus
- Abstract expressionism in context
- Other perspectives
- Abstract expressionism in detail
The abstract expressionists were mostly based in New York City, and also became known as the New York school. The name evokes their aim to make art that while abstract was also expressive or emotional in its effect. They were inspired by the surrealist idea that art should come from the unconscious mind, and by the automatism of artist Joan Miró.
Types of abstract expressionism
Within abstract expressionism were two broad groupings: the action painters (who attached their canvases with expressive brush strokes); and the painters who filled their canvases with abstract forms and fields of colour.
- The action painters were led by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who worked in a spontaneous improvisatory manner often using large brushes to make sweeping gestural marks. Pollock famously placed his canvas on the ground and danced around it pouring paint from the can or trailing it from the brush or a stick. In this way, the action painters directly placed their inner impulses onto the canvas.
- The second grouping included Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. They were deeply interested in religion and myth and created simple compositions with large areas of a single colour intended to produce a contemplative or meditational response in the viewer. In an essay written in 1948 Barnett Newmann said: ‘Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘’life’’, we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings’. (This approach to painting developed from around 1960 into what became known as colour field painting, characterised by artists using large areas of more or less a single flat colour).
Rothko exhibition guide
Read this online room guide for Tate Modern’s 2008 Rothko exhibition, the first significant exhibition of the artist’s work to be held in the UK for over 20 years, to find out about the artist’s work and ideas.
Curator, Achim Borchardrt-Hume, takes us on a tour of the 2008 Rothko exhibition, which included the iconic Seagram Murals, Black-Form paintings, and the Black on Grey paintings.
Jackson Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A
Read our blog post focusing on this iconic abstract expressionist artwork.
Jackson Pollock: 5 Things
Discover five things you might not know about Pollock.
Jackson Pollock: Separating Man from Myth
This feature addresses and dispels some of the folklore that has grown up around this ground-breaking artist’s life and times.
The modern was a highly contested area. This is the years where people were emerging from the shadows of the second world war and still trying to find the an appropriate artistic language for the time.
Chris Stephens, curator
Watch curator Chris Stephens discuss what else was happening at the time in the art world when abstract expressionism was an established movement.
I was absolutely stunned by his painting, I had never seen painting like it…some of the paint stood two inches from the canvas.
Agnes ‘Mougouch’ Magruder
Gorky’s wife Agnes ‘Mougouch’ Magruder talks about the life and work of the extraordinary painter, Arshile Gorky in this TateShots video.
Abstraction sans frontières
Find out how abstract expressionism influenced the development of abstract painting in St Ives, in this Tate Etc. article.
Listen to conservation scientist Tom Learner explain the materials and processes Pollock applied to Summertime: Number 9A
The History and Manufacture of pigments used by Mark Rothko
This paper discusses the chemistry, manufacture, availability and end-use of lithol red in order to gain a greater understanding of how Rothko might have viewed the pigment.