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 characterized by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity

1 of 9
  • 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

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Jackson Pollock, 'Number 23' 1948

    Jackson Pollock
    Number 23 1948
    Enamel on gesso on paper
    support: 575 x 784 mm frame: 651 x 861 x 42 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) 1960 ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Barnett Newman, 'Adam' 1951-2

    Barnett Newman
    Adam 1951-2
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2429 x 2029 mm
    Purchased 1968 ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Sam Francis, 'Around the Blues' 1957/62

    Sam Francis
    Around the Blues 1957/62
    Oil and acrylic on canvas
    support: 2751 x 4871 mm
    Purchased 1964 Estate of Sam Francis/ ARS, NY & DACS, London 2002

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Arshile Gorky, 'Waterfall' 1943

    Arshile Gorky
    Waterfall 1943
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1537 x 1130 mm frame: 1713 x 1308 x 87 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971 ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Mark Rothko, 'Untitled' circa 1950-2

    Mark Rothko
    Untitled circa 1950-2
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1900 x 1011 x 35 mm
    Presented by the Mark Rothko Foundation 1986 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 1998

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Lee Krasner, 'Gothic Landscape' 1961

    Lee Krasner
    Gothic Landscape 1961
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1768 x 2378 mm frame: 1784 x 2391 x 52 mm
    Purchased 1981 ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Hans Hofmann, 'Pompeii' 1959

    Hans Hofmann
    Pompeii 1959
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2140 x 1327 mm
    Purchased 1981 The estate of Hans Hofmann

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Franz Kline, 'Meryon' 1960-1

    Franz Kline
    Meryon 1960-1
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2359 x 1956 mm frame: 2404 x 2000 x 47 mm
    Purchased 1967 ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

    View the main page for this artwork

Introduction to abstract expressionsim

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.

Types of abstract expressionsim

Willem De Kooning, 'The Visit' 1966-7

Willem De Kooning
The Visit 1966-7

View the main page for this artwork

Mark Rothko, 'Black on Maroon' 1958

Mark Rothko
Black on Maroon 1958

View the main page for this artwork

Within abstract expressionism were two broad groupings, action painters and colour field painters.

  • 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.
  • Colour field painters 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.

Further reading

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.

Abstract expressionist artists in focus

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 anstract 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.

Abstract expressionism in context

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.

Other perspectives

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.

Landscapes of the mind
Tate Etc. editor Simon Grant interviews painter Brice Marden about his enduring fascination with Rothko’s paintings.

Rothko: Shadows of Light
Watch a performance of composer Jim Aitchison’s response in music to Rothko’s Seagram Murals.

Abstraction sans frontières
Article exploring the influence of abstract expressionism on the development of painting in St Ives.

Abstract expressionism in detail

Modern Paint podcast – Jackson Pollock
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. 

Related glossary terms

Action painters, automatism, colour field painting,New York School, gestural, formlessness