Term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters in 1940s and 1950s, often characterized by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity

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  • Jackson Pollock, 'Yellow Islands' 1952

    Jackson Pollock
    Yellow Islands 1952
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1435 x 1854 mm frame: 1462 x 1945 x 41 mm
    Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery (purchased out of funds provided by Mr and Mrs H.J. Heinz II and H.J. Heinz Co. Ltd) 1961
    © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

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  • Willem De Kooning, 'The Visit' 1966-7

    Willem De Kooning
    The Visit 1966-7
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1524 x 1219 mm frame: 1615 x 1303 x 78 mm
    Purchased 1969 Willem de Kooning Revocable Trust/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

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  • Mark Rothko, 'Black on Maroon' 1958

    Mark Rothko
    Black on Maroon 1958
    Mixed media on canvas
    support: 2286 x 2070 mm
    Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 1998

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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 Joan Miró.

Within abstract expressionism were two broad groupings. These were the so-called action painters led by Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning, and the colour-field painters, notably Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. The action painters 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 direct from the can or trailing it from the brush or a stick. In this way they directly placed their inner impulses on the canvas. The colour field painters were deeply interested in religion and myth. They created simple compositions with large areas of a single colour intended to produce a contemplative or meditational response in the viewer.