Abstract Expressionism: Movements & Artists

Abstract Expressionism: Movements & Artists

What Is Abstract Expressionism?

Abstract Expressionism, often referred to simply as "Ab-Ex," stands as one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century.

Characterized by its spontaneous, emotive, and non-representational approach to painting, this movement redefined the boundaries of art, unleashing a wave of creative freedom and experimentation.

In this blog post, we will delve deep into the history, origins, various sub-movements, distinctive styles, and notable artists of Abstract Expressionism.

"Virages" by Aloyzas Smilingis-Elis.

A Brief History and Origins

Abstract Expressionism emerged in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s, a period marked by significant global turmoil, including the aftermath of World War II and the onset of the Cold War.

It was a reaction against the traditional European art forms and a response to the existential anxieties and uncertainties of the time.

The movement found its roots in New York City and would later become known as the "New York School."

Abstract Expressionist Movements

Abstract Expressionism can be divided into two major sub-movements:

  1. Action Painting

Action Painting was a style championed by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. In this approach, the act of painting itself was seen as a form of self-expression. Artists would employ vigorous and spontaneous brushwork, often dripping or flinging paint onto the canvas. The end result was a dynamic, energetic composition that captured the artist's emotional state at the moment of creation.

  1. Color Field Painting

Color Field Painting, represented by artists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, took a more serene and contemplative approach. It involved large expanses of color on the canvas, often with soft edges and minimalistic compositions. The goal was to create a sense of transcendence and emotional resonance through the careful use of color and form.

"Two Charming Supernovas" by Gina Vor.

Painting techniques

Abstract Expressionist artists employed a wide range of painting techniques to create their distinctive and emotionally charged artworks. Here are some of the main techniques associated with Abstract Expressionism:

  1. Drip Painting: This technique, famously used by Jackson Pollock, involves dripping or pouring paint directly onto the canvas. The artist would often stand or move around the canvas, allowing gravity to guide the paint. The result is a dynamic, intricate web of drips and splatters.
  1. Gesture Painting: Gesture painting is characterized by bold, gestural brushstrokes. Artists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline used energetic and spontaneous movements to create dynamic compositions filled with emotion and expression.
  1. Color Fields: Artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman created large expanses of solid color on the canvas. These color fields often had soft edges and were meant to evoke deep emotional responses in the viewer through the careful selection and arrangement of colors.
  1. Palette Knife: Some Abstract Expressionists, including Joan Mitchell, used palette knives to apply and manipulate paint on the canvas. This technique allowed for both thick impasto textures and delicate, sweeping strokes.
  1. Soak-Stain Technique: Helen Frankenthaler developed the "soak-stain" technique, where she poured diluted paint onto raw canvas. This allowed the paint to seep into the canvas, creating luminous and flowing compositions.
  1. Automatism: involves creating art without conscious control or intention. Artists like Robert Motherwell and Joan Miró explored this technique, often using automatic drawing or painting to tap into the subconscious mind.
  1. Layering and Collage: Many Abstract Expressionists embraced layering and collage as techniques to add depth and complexity to their works. They would often apply paint, paper, or other materials on top of existing layers, creating rich textures and visual depth.
  1. Energetic Brushwork: Bold and expressive brushwork was a hallmark of Abstract Expressionism. Artists would use brushes of various sizes to create dynamic and expressive marks on the canvas, conveying their emotional states.
  1. Reductive Techniques: Some Abstract Expressionists, like Mark Rothko, would apply paint and then remove or scrape it away to reveal underlying layers. This process of adding and subtracting paint added depth and complexity to their compositions.

These various techniques allowed Abstract Expressionist artists to convey their emotions, thoughts, and inner experiences in a highly personal and intuitive manner. The freedom and experimentation associated with these techniques contributed to the movement's revolutionary impact on the art world.

Notable Abstract Expressionist Artists

Abstract Expressionism was home to a myriad of talented artists who left an indelible mark on the art world. 

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956): Renowned for his drip painting technique, Pollock's groundbreaking works like "Autumn Rhythm" and "Number 1A, 1948" are iconic examples of Abstract Expressionism.

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997): De Kooning's art evolved from figurative to abstract, and his series of "Woman" paintings challenged traditional notions of beauty and femininity.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970): Rothko's color field paintings, such as the "Rothko Chapel" series, are celebrated for their spiritual depth and emotional resonance.

Barnett Newman (1905-1970): Newman's "zip" paintings, with vertical stripes or "zips" of color, pushed the boundaries of minimalist abstraction.

Clyfford Still (1904-1980): Still's abstract works often featured monumental, jagged forms and an intensity that expressed raw emotional power.

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991):** Motherwell was a prominent member of the New York School and created numerous works exploring themes of automatism and chance.

Franz Kline (1910-1962): Kline's black-and-white paintings are known for their bold, gestural brushstrokes and dynamic compositions.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974): Gottlieb's "Pictographs" and "Burst" series combined symbolic imagery with Abstract Expressionist techniques.

Philip Guston (1913-1980): Initially associated with Abstract Expressionism, Guston transitioned to a more figurative style later in his career.

Lee Krasner (1908-1984):  Krasner was a trailblazing Abstract Expressionist known for her dynamic, gestural compositions. She was married to Jackson Pollock and played a crucial role in his career.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011): Frankenthaler was celebrated for her "soak-stain" technique, which involved pouring diluted paint onto raw canvas to create luminous, flowing compositions.

Grace Hartigan (1922-2008): Hartigan's works often combined Abstract Expressionism with elements of figurative art, resulting in vibrant and emotionally charged paintings.

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992): Mitchell's expressive, abstract landscapes captured the vitality of the natural world. Her large-scale works are celebrated for their vibrant colors and energetic brushwork.

Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989): Elaine de Kooning, wife of Willem de Kooning, was a talented Abstract Expressionist painter known for her portraits and dynamic abstractions.

Jay DeFeo (1929-1989): DeFeo's work often explored themes of transformation and rebirth. Her masterpiece, "The Rose," is a monumental and heavily textured abstract painting.

Perle Fine (1905-1988): Fine's abstract compositions often featured geometric shapes and bold colors, reflecting her dedication to non-objective art.

Ethel Schwabacher (1903-1984): Schwabacher's art evolved from figurative to abstract, and she was associated with the New York School of Abstract Expressionism.

These male and female artists, among others, collectively shaped the Abstract Expressionist movement, leaving behind a rich legacy of innovative and emotionally charged artworks. Their contributions continue to influence and inspire artists and art enthusiasts to this day.


Abstract Expressionism was a seismic shift in the art world, challenging convention and allowing artists to express their deepest emotions in groundbreaking ways. Its legacy continues to inspire artists and art lovers worldwide, reminding us of the boundless possibilities of artistic expression. Whether through the frenetic energy of action painting or the contemplative serenity of color fields, Abstract Expressionism will forever hold a significant place in the annals of art history.

Looking for an abstract expressionist artwork? Visit our online art gallery and discover original and affordable abstract expressionist paintings, works on paper and prints.


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