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

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  • Jackson Pollock, 'Yellow Islands' 1952
    Jackson Pollock
    Yellow Islands 1952
    © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014
  • Jackson Pollock, 'Number 23' 1948
    Jackson Pollock
    Number 23 1948
    © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002
  • 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
  • Arshile Gorky, 'Waterfall' 1943
    Arshile Gorky
    Waterfall 1943
    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • 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
  • 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
  • Hans Hofmann, 'Pompeii' 1959
    Hans Hofmann
    Pompeii 1959
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2140 x 1327 mm

    Purchased 1981© The estate of Hans Hofmann
  • 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
  • Robert Motherwell, 'Ulysses' 1947
    Robert Motherwell
    Ulysses 1947
    Oil and cardboard on wood
    support: 857 x 711 mm
    frame: 962 x 814 x 85 mm
    Acquired by purchase and gift from the Dedalus Foundation 1996© Dedalus Foundation, Inc/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2002
  • Robert Motherwell, 'Iberia No. II' 1958
    Robert Motherwell
    Iberia No. II 1958
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1203 x 2042 mm
    frame: 1240 x 2073 x 63 mm
    Acquired by purchase and gift from the Dedalus Foundation 1996© Dedalus Foundation, Inc/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2002
  • Robert Motherwell, 'Poet (1)' 1961
    Robert Motherwell
    Poet (1) 1961
    Lithograph on paper
    image: 549 x 410 mm
    Presented by the Museum of Modern Art, New York 1976© Dedalus Foundation, Inc/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2002

Introduction to abstract expressionism

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

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

The Visit 1966-7
Mark Rothko, 'Black on Maroon' 1958
Mark Rothko

Black on Maroon 1958

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).

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 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.

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
Find out how abstract expressionism influenced the development of abstract painting in St Ives, in this Tate Etc. article.

Abstract expressionism in detail

Jackson Pollock, 'Summertime: Number 9A' 1948
Jackson Pollock
Summertime: Number 9A 1948
Oil, enamel and house paint on canvas
© Pollock - Krasner Foundation, Inc.

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 paintingNew York School, gestural, formlessness, brushwork