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Even if you aren’t familiar with the term abstract expressionism, you would probably recognize a piece of this type of art if you saw it. Think: Jackson Pollock’s drips and splashes of paint or Mark Rothko’s large-scale paintings with irregular, rectangular swaths of color. 

Rather than paint subjects, abstract expressionists sought to express emotion through gestural brushstrokes and abstract marks on their canvases. Learn more about this important movement, including its history and common characteristics of abstract expressionist paintings, in this guide. 

What Is Abstract Expressionism? 

Let’s start with an abstract expressionism definition: an art movement in American painting that started in New York in the 1940s (which is why it’s sometimes also known as the New York School) that gained momentum as artists sought to find ways to express their emotions after World War II. 

Overall, abstract expressionist paintings don’t share a particular, cohesive style. Instead, the movement is based on the shared motivation behind the artwork: using abstract marks and gestural movements to convey strong emotions. 

Abstract expressionists can generally be captured in two main categories: action painters and color field painters. 

Action painters used sweeping, expressive brushstrokes to create their artwork. They relied on spontaneity and gestural movement to fill their canvases with color. Sometimes, in fact, artists even allowed the paint to drip onto the canvas subconsciously, in an attempt to let their psyche and subconscious mind express themselves. American critic Harold Rosenberg aptly coined the term “action painting,” describing the canvas as “an arena in which to act.”

One of the most well-known action painters, Jackson Pollock, was known to place his canvas on the ground and pour or drip paint onto it directly from a can. He also used nontraditional painting tools, such as sticks or syringes, to mark the canvas. 

“Lucifer” by Jackson Pollock
Source: rocor via Flickr Creative Commons
“Lucifer” by Jackson Pollock

Color field painters created much simpler compositions, filling large areas of a canvas—or the entire canvas—with a single, flat color. Many of Mark Rothko’s paintings, for example, include large squares and rectangles of solid colors. The painting contains no recognizable images at all—just color. However, that doesn’t mean that the compositions are random or thoughtless. These artists painted strategically, using the psychology behind color to evoke a contemplative or meditational response from the viewer.  

Some of the most well-known abstract expressionist painters include: 

  • Willem de Kooning
  • Lee Krasner
  • Franz Kline
  • Jasper Johns
  • Barnett Newman
  • Clyfford Still
Paintings by Mark Rothko
Source: arcticpenguin via Flickr Creative Commons
Paintings by Mark Rothko

While abstract expressionism is generally associated with painters, certain sculptors, such as David Smith, Dorothy Dehner, and Herbert Ferber are also considered an important part of the movement.  

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Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism 

Abstract expressionist paintings generally have a few key characteristics in common. Artists from this movement often painted on large canvases and took an all-over approach—meaning that every part of the canvas was considered equally important, as opposed to the center being the focal point.

Many abstract expressionist painters also chose to use unconventional materials, such as house paint. The most defining characteristic, however, is the use of expressive or gestural marks to convey strong emotional content. 

Abstract Expressionism Time Period

Abstract expressionism took off after World War II, between 1943 and the mid-1950s. During the abstract expressionism time period, many artists questioned how art—and life—could continue in the same way following such a cruel and vicious war. Abstract expressionism allowed those artists to express deep emotions through gestural and abstract markings. 

History Behind the Abstract Expressionism Movement

To really understand the history of the abstract expressionism movement, you have to consider the years leading up to the time period when it emerged. In the 1930s, many surrealist artists left Europe because of political instability and found a new home in New York. Surrealist artists sought to explore the unconscious, and in a similar way, abstract expressionists aimed to engage with their unconscious by using a go-with-the-flow approach to creating art. 

By intentionally not planning their paintings, some abstract expressionists believed they could more accurately express their emotions. However, some artists did feel it was necessary to plot out their compositions, especially to account for the large size of the canvas

The movement spread quickly throughout the United States, but it was largely centered in New York and California. Eventually, it became the first American art movement that garnered international recognition, and it moved the center of the Western art world from Paris to New York. 

Examples of Abstract Expressionism

One of the most interesting aspects of this art movement is that each abstract expressionist painter had such a distinctive style. While some worked in drips and splatters, others used symbolism and large areas of color to convey their point of view. The examples below, from some of the most renowned abstract expressionist painters, demonstrate the wide array of styles and artistic voices. 

“One: Number 31, 1950” by Jackson Pollock

“One: Number 31” by Jackson Pollock 
Source: unsplash
Patrons at the Museum of Modern Art viewing “One: Number 31” by Jackson Pollock 

One of Jackson Pollock’s largest pieces, “One: Number 31” demonstrates Pollock’s renowned drip style of painting. In this work, Pollock layered splatters of black, white, and brown paint over a background of subdued colors. While the painting may look random and chaotic, art scholars recognize a sense of order within the splatters. Some interpret the painting to symbolize the primal rhythms of nature and the pulsing intensity of the modern city. This painting is currently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. 

“No. 5” by Mark Rothko

“No. 5,” Mark Rothko
Source: Wally Gobetz via Flickr Creative Commons
In “No. 5,” Mark Rothko displays his signature painting style

This painting represents Mark Rothko’s signature style: large rectangles of solid color. Rothko paid meticulous attention to the formal rules of color, shape, balance, and scale. However, while his paintings are seemingly simple, they go much deeper than basic colorful shapes. Rothko associated the essential art principles of contrasting color, darkness and lumosity, and broad space with profound themes including tragedy, ecstasy, and the sublime. 

“Re-Echo” by Lee Krasner

Lee Kranser’s “Re-Echo”
Source: instagram
Lee Kranser’s “Re-Echo”

“Re-Echo” is one of 17 paintings in Lee Krasner’s Earth Green series. This was one of the first paintings she created after the death of her husband, Jackson Pollock, and the piece—and its title—alludes to a season of change. At the time, Krasner was not only adjusting to life without her husband but also finding her own artistic style and voice apart from Pollock. 

In the painting, you can see small shapes reminiscent of fruit and leaves. These symbols of new life are scattered among shadows, suggesting that all things will eventually suffer death and decay. 

“Woman In Landscape III” by Willem de Kooning

“Woman VI” by Willem de Kooning
Source: instagram
“Woman VI” by Willem de Kooning

This is the last painting of “Woman,” Willem de Kooning’s most famous series of abstract works. In the middle of this life-size painting, you can identify the shape of a woman, made up of simple geometric shapes, including triangles, squares, and circles. As a whole, the “Woman” series showed a woman’s changing figure over time. This, as the last in the series, is the most abstract. The painting is now displayed at the Carnegie Museum of Art. 

“Map” by Jasper Johns

“Map” by Jasper Johns
Source: Wally Gobetz via Flickr Creative Commons
“Map” by Jasper Johns

“Map,” a painting by Jasper Johns, makes you look twice—because it looks both familiar and foreign at the same time. And that is by design; Johns was inspired by the concept of really examining and understanding an image, rather than simply glancing at it out of the corner of your eye. According to him, that’s often what happened with maps of the United States. Because the map is so common, it is “seen and not looked at, not examined.” So, by energetically applying the paint, he produced a painting reminiscent of the U.S., while undermining the basics of cartography. 

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It’s easy to look at an abstract expressionist painting and not know what to make of it—isn’t it just random drips and splatters of paint? But when you understand the history of the movement—that it was less about painting a subject true to life and more about using paint to convey your emotions—you can better see how those expressive brush strokes reveal a much deeper meaning. 

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