Everything you need to know about Abstract Expressionism

An overview of the wide-ranging American painting movement that emerged in post-war New York, illustrated with works offered at Christie’s


From left to right: Helen Frankenthaler, 1969. Photograph by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images; Franz Kline, 1961. Photograph by Fred W. McDarrah/MUUS Collection via Getty Images; Jackson Pollock, 1950. Photo by Hans Namuth/Photo Researchers History/Getty Images

Abstract Expressionism was a uniquely American art movement

The term Abstract Expressionism refers to the American artists working in abstraction in the 1940s and 1950s. As the first movement developed in the US, it is characterised by a rejection of traditional artistic standards and a focus on spontaneity and gesture. Often monumental in scale and grounded in the subjective experiences of the individual, Abstract Expressionist paintings exude a classically American sensibility.

While Ab Ex developed on American soil, many of its participants were immigrants from Europe, fleeing the turmoil in their home countries. Hans Hofmann, a pioneering artist and influential painting teacher, was from Germany; while Willem de Kooning came from the Netherlands, Arshile Gorky from Armenia and Mark Rothko from Latvia.

The term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was coined by Robert Coates, art critic for The New Yorker

In a 1946 review of work by Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning for The New Yorker, the art critic Robert Coates used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ to describe the painters’ melding of styles. The term would later be applied to a wide range of American artists whose work was expressive of the individual self. 

These artists are also known as ‘the New York School.’ Some artists maintained that their work was not abstract but representative of the subconscious. The New York School encompasses the broad spectrum of styles and substantial artistic developments that emerged in New York City in the years following World War II.

The movement was a response to the turmoil of the era

Abstract Expressionism came about on the heels of one of history’s most tumultuous eras, and was informed by the Great Depression and the devastation of the Second World War. ‘We felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world destroyed by a great depression and a fierce World War,’ wrote Barnett Newman, ‘and it was impossible at the time to paint the kind of paintings that we were doing — flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello.’

Meanwhile, the American public was exposed to European modernism through groundbreaking exhibitions at institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Living Art, New York’s first modern and contemporary art museum. Influenced by artists like Picasso and Matisse and seeking an apolitical medium of expression, the Abstract Expressionists created a revolutionary visual language based in interiority.

It was also used as a weapon of the Cold War

As the Cold War continued into the 1950s and tensions between the US and Soviet Union escalated, culture became a linchpin for the US government. Many argued that modern art was an embodiment of freedom and that Abstract Expressionism in particular, with its emphasis on individual expression, was a perfect foil to the rigid aesthetics and political structures of Communism. 

Though Abstract Expressionists were not political themselves, their work was unwittingly co-opted by the government. Throughout the Cold War, MoMA, with the unlikely aid of the CIA, pushed for global recognition of American painting. An influential MoMA exhibition, The New American Painting, toured Europe from 1958-1959, including Berlin, Milan, Paris and London. 

It was an expensive tour — one the host cities couldn’t afford to put on. While initially the public believed it was made possible through a donation from millionaire Jules Fleishmann, the British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders later uncovered that the money actually came from the Farfield Foundation, a front for CIA funding.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Untitled, circa 1946-1947. Gouache, ink, pastel and oil on paper. 22½ x 30¾ in (57.1 x 78.1 cm). Sold for $756,000 in Post-War & Contemporary Art Day Sale on 10 November 2023 at Christie’s in New York

It was an expensive tour — one the host cities couldn’t afford to put on. While initially the public believed it was made possible through a donation from millionaire Jules Fleishmann, the British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders later uncovered that the money actually came from the Farfield Foundation, a front for CIA funding.

The movement marked the rise of New York City as the global arts center

The advent of Abstract Expressionism came with a shift of influence in the art world. Paris, once the undisputed center of culture, was recovering from the devastation of the Second World War. Many artists had already fled Europe for New York City in the 1930s as fascism raged across the continent, but even more came after the war. 

The United States was booming both economically and culturally, with New York at its heart. The founding of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929 paved the way for modernism to be supported institutionally throughout the city, and serious patrons like Peggy Guggenheim, a benefactor of artists like Pollock and Rothko, helped cement the shift.

Action painting is one of the central forms of Abstract Expressionism

The Abstract Expressionist movement is often divided into two broad groups: action painters and colour field painters. Action painters, like Pollock and de Kooning, focused on the ‘act’ of painting, conveying energy and motion through their gestural application of paint. As the critic Harold Rosenberg, who coined the term ‘action painting’ in a 1952 article for Art News, wrote, ‘What was to go on canvas was not a picture but an event.’ 

Within this subset, each artist had a signature style. Pollock created his famous drip paintings by splattering and pouring paint directly onto a canvas arranged on the floor. He eschewed paintbrushes for tools like sticks and turkey basters, moving them across the surface of the painting in a rhythmic, fluid way.

De Kooning’s favoured technique throughout the late 1950s, dubbed the ‘full arm sweep’ by the critic Thomas Hess, was characterised by wide strokes of paint resulting in total abstraction. Helen Frankenthaler, on the other hand, invented the ‘soak-stain’ technique, by which thinned paint was applied to an untreated canvas. 

Like Pollock, Frankenthaler spread her canvases across the floor, allowing the paint to soak into the surface. She would then manipulate the paint with brushes, rollers or by tipping the canvas different ways.

Colour field painting is the other main variation

In his book Abstract Expressionism, the scholar Ivring Sandler characterised Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman as ‘colour field painters’. These artists used large swaths of colour to express emotion and elicit wonder.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Untitled (Red, Orange on Pink), 1968. Oil on paper laid down on canvas. 33½ x 25¾ in (85.1 x 65.4 cm). Sold for $6,584,000 in 20th Century Evening Sale on 9 November 2023 at Christie’s in New York

These artists were the precursors to the more purely abstract American movement of Color Field painting that developed during the 1960s, as seen in the work of artists like Morris Louis and Sam Gilliam. These later Color Field painters focused on the formal as opposed to spiritual qualities of colour. 

Frankenthaler is largely credited for playing a pivitol role in the transition from Ab Ex to Color Field painting.

Though diverse in styles, the artists of the movement were united by their location and interests

The canon of Abstract Expressionism looks different than many other schools of painting because it wasn’t a united movement. Each artist’s response to their world was as different and complex as the next. 

While the meditative feel of the so-called colour field painters may seem incongruous with the raw, gestural works of the action painters, these separate styles were related in their pursuit of depicting the subconscious. It is this desire to express the inner self and evoke emotion that unites them under the Ab Ex umbrella.

They were also united by time and place. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, many Abstract Expressionists lived in New York City’s Greenwich Village. They would congregate at local watering holes like the Cedar Tavern, where they would unwind, socialise and discuss art. 

These gatherings, which took place during what Elaine de Kooning once described as ‘a decade-long bender,’ would sometimes end in brawls, and Pollock was famously banned from the Cedar Tavern for life after ripping a door off of its hinges.

While Ab Ex is often defined by machismo, there were many influential women artists in the canon

While many of the best-known artists associated with Abstract Expressionism — Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline — were men, there was a significant contingent of female artists working within the movement. Though some, like Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning and Lee Krasner, achieved acclaim during their time, most were ignored by history, remaining obscure footnotes of the larger group for decades.

Early on, many of these women were studying and exhibiting alongside the men, but the gatekeepers of the increasingly commercial art world — even female gallerists like Betty Parsons — ultimately excluded them. It is only recently that these women’s contributions have been more widely acknowledged, such as in the 2016 exhibition at the Denver Art Museum entitled Women of Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionists drew inspiration from diverse movements across the history of art

While there was no one movement that Abstract Expressionism grew out of, Surrealism is often cited as a central influence. As fascism spread across Europe throughout the 1930s, many prominent artists escaped to New York. Among them were influential figures within the Surrealist movement such as Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and André Breton. 

The Surrealists’ interest in the subconscious and surrendering to the dream state had a direct effect on Abstract Expressionism’s spontaneous approach to creation. This is perhaps most obvious in Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings, an offshoot of the surrealist notion of ‘automatism.’

Other Ab Ex artists drew on various styles across eras. Mitchell, for instance, was greatly influenced by Post-Impressionist painters such as Matisse; whereas Kline cited Tintoretto, Rembrandt and Goya as inspirations. Rothko’s bands of colour were inspired by the horizontal designs of Greek vases, while Pollock’s ‘drip’ technique was conceived after viewing a demonstration of Navajo sand painting.

Jazz music was another major influence

Many Abstract Expressionist artists were inspired by jazz, whose free-form, improvisational ethos mirrored the tenets of the artistic movement. In the titles of their paintings and their own commentary, Abstract Expressionists made frequent reference to the musical genre. 

Norman Lewis often depicted jazz clubs in his Harlem neighborhood through his signature gestural abstraction. De Kooning famously compared his technique to that of Miles Davis, saying, ‘Miles Davis bends the notes. He doesn't play them, he bends them. I bend the paint.’ 

Pollock was also a noted jazz fan, and the lyricism of the genre appears in many of his works. His wife, the artist Lee Krasner, once said, he ‘would get into grooves of listening to jazz records — not just for days — day and night, day and night for three days running, until you thought you would climb the roof!’

Abstract Expressionism continues to hold a prominent place in the art world

It is a consistent influence on contemporary artists as well as a recurring theme for scholars and within the art market. 

Since MoMA’s The New American Painting, there have been myriad seminal shows dedicated to the exploration of the movement. From the Met’s Epic Abstraction that opened in 2018 to the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London, it remains of interest across the globe.


Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Black Fire I, 1961. Oil on canvas. 114 x 84 in (289.5 x 213.3 cm). Sold for $84,165,000 on 12 May 2014 at Christie’s in New York

At auction, works by Abstract Expressionists continue to smash records, with several artists earning some of the highest prices ever seen. In 2012, Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) sold for $86.9 million at Christie’s, setting a record for the artist. The sale of Barnett Newman’s Black Fire I at Christie’s for $84.1 million set another record in 2014.

The highest price for this category belongs to Willem de Kooning, whose Interchange was purchased privately for $300 million, making it the second most expensive piece of art ever sold.

Today, Abstract Expressionism is not just hot on the market; it also continues to resonate with contemporary creatives. Popular artists like Cecily Brown, Anish Kapoor and Julian Schnabel have referenced the movement throughout their oeuvre, and Ab Ex motifs are even beginning to appear in the work of NFT artists, affirming its ongoing relevance.

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