In the early 1940s, a group of loosely affiliated artists, primarily in New York, started a new movement that would revolutionize art forever, introducing radical new ideas and concepts. Although these artists never formed a formal association, they founded the movement of Abstract Expressionism. Let's explore some interesting facts about Abstract Expressionism.

Style and Characteristics

Abstract Expressionism definition comprises diverse styles and techniques. However, as different as the works of these artists may be, they all had one aim: they wanted to free themselves from everything traditional and ultimately find new ways of artistic expression through abstract and non-representational means.

These artists believed that art should be created subconsciously and spontaneously. Therefore, they did not plan out or sketch a drawing before starting the making process. Instead, the artists just followed their feelings and the openness of their minds. They were mainly interested in expressing intangible thoughts and moods through color. 

They broke away from the classical approach of conventionally accepted techniques and subject matters and created monumentally scaled works. It was only in large-scale formats that they could fully indulge in the making processes, characterized by dynamic, energetic, and spontaneous gestures to create abstract compositions. 

At the beginning of the Abstract Expressionism movement, the artists used primitive mythology and ancient art for inspiration. They believed that they would find timeless and powerful subject matters there. 

In their early works, pictographic and biomorphic forms or images can be found – abstract, however recognizable references to plants or the human body. They transformed these forms and ideas into personal codes. 

History: World War II and Post-War Period

Before the Second World War and during, many artists, including painters, writers, poets, collectors, and art dealers, fled Europe due to the onslaught of and prosecution by the Nazis. They found a new home in the United States, especially in New York. 

After the war, the European continent had to be rebuilt and restructured economically and politically. In 1939, Before the outbreak of the war, Paris had been the center of European culture and the capital of the Western art world. However, it started to lose this position during the fighting on European soil, eventually overtaken by New York, where a new generation of creatives, the Abstract Expressionists, had started to emerge. They soon dominated the art world. A group of these artists also actually started one of the first schools in America. 

Abstract Expressionism in Context

There were many US-based artists who started their careers in the 1930s. During the period of the Great Depression of the 1930s, two popular art movements developed - Regionalism and Social Realism. However, neither of these two movements satisfied most young artists' desire to find an artistic style that expressed social responsibility while being free of provincialism and explicit politics. 

As a consequence of the Depression, the US government started developing government relief programs, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was a job program designed for unemployed Americans. Many young artists participated in it, enabling them to establish a career path.

In the early 1930s, young American artists were also exposed to European Modernism, which further influenced them to develop modernist abstract art. In addition, there were several venues in New York for viewing avant-garde art from Europe, and lessons were given by European art experts. 

Finally, World War II and its aftermath had an important influence on Abstract Expressionism artists. Because of the War, these young artists were aware of human irrationality and vulnerability and wanted to express their concerns in their art in a new way. 

Artists Who Influenced the Movement

During the Abstract Expressionism art period, some artists had a seminal influence on the movement. Their contributions were original, groundbreaking, and remarkable and influenced virtually everything that came after them. 

Arshile Gorky (1904 – 1948)

Betrothal II

The Armenian-American painter, Arshile Gorky (April 15, 1904 – July 21, 1948), received American citizenship and became considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. The Armenian genocide had a crucial influence on Gorky's work as an artist.

His work offered a "new language" for young American artists. The spontaneity of his works, such as "The Liver is the Cock's Comb," "One Year the Milkweed," and "The Betrothal II," prefigured Abstract Expressionism. Oil painting reproduction stores like 1st Art Gallery will help art lovers find the most eye-catching paintings of Arshile Gorky and other influencers of Abstract Expressionism.

He used twisted, elegant lines to introduce biomorphic forms in his abstract paintings. He also used an overlay of colors to create complex landscapes of lines and colors on his canvases.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

Orange and Yellow

Mark Rothko was an American painter best known for his large-scale, color-saturated canvases that sought to create an immersive experience for the viewer. He was a key figure in the development of Color Field Painting, an abstract style that emphasized color and texture over representational imagery. Rothko's paintings often consisted of soft-edged, rectangular blocks of color that appeared to hover and vibrate on the canvas. His work was intended to evoke a spiritual and emotional response from the viewer and has been described as meditative and transcendental. Despite his success and critical acclaim, Rothko struggled with depression and committed suicide in 1970. His legacy lives on as his work continues to inspire and influence contemporary artists.

Milton Avery (1885-1965)

Resting Gulls

Milton Avery was an American painter known for his use of color and abstraction. Avery used Abstract Expressionism characteristics in his paintings, although he is not typically considered a core representative of this style. His style was more focused on the balance between figuration and abstraction, rather than the spontaneous, gestural painting that was central to Abstract Expressionism definition. However, Avery's influence can be seen in the work of some Abstract Expressionist artists, particularly in his use of color as a means of expression. Avery's contributions to the development of modern art were significant, and his legacy continues to be celebrated today.

Action Painting

Action painting is a subcategory of Abstract Expressionism art used from the 1940s until the early 1960s. As a result, some art scholars use the terms "action painting" and "abstract expressionism" interchangeably. 

The term originated from a remark by a well-known and respected American art critic, Harold Rosenberg, in 1952. According to him, the artist's canvas had become an action arena. 

The emphasis shifted from the finished artwork to the act of painting itself. The completed artwork was only the physical manifestation of the actual work of art – the painting process itself. 

For Abstract Expressionism, artists let the unconscious part of the psyche express itself; the painter could, for instance, let the paint drip onto the canvas while dancing or just standing on it. Therefore it is challenging to interpret Abstract Expressionism art. 

Jackson Pollock was one of the artists creating energetic action paintings. Another essential artist labeled as an action painter was Franz Kline, who didn't focus on figures or imagery but on the actual brushstrokes and the use of canvas.

Automatic writing can be described as the expression of the subconscious. It implies that one should write or draw randomly across the paper without rational thinking. This technique was an essential vehicle for action painters like Kline and Pollock. They created calligraphic and linear symbols using gestures, surfaces, and lines.

Other action painters, such as de Kooning and Gorky, incorporated imagery into their abstract landscapes or utilized it to expressively depict figures. They did that to articulate their highly personal and powerful recalling of a feeling, memory, or image of their conscious mind.

Jackson Pollock

American painter Paul Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) was a major role player in the Abstract Expressionist movement. His "drip technique" became widely recognized and appreciated. By pouring or splashing liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface using this technique, he was able to view his canvases from different angles. 

Color field artists adapted Pollock's staining of raw canvas. However, many contemporary artists have adopted Pollock's emphasis on the creative process rather than how the finished product looked.

Color Field

Femme Au Miroir

The Abstract Expressionism artists wanted to move away from the Surrealism of Miró and Picasso to a style that emphasized a more personal expression. Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Paul Newman are examples of artists moving to a new technique and philosophy within the realm of Abstract Expressionism characteristics. They used color as an expressive, emotional object in its own right. 

Still, for instance, created canvases with bold colors that were torn up and ruptured by other textures and irregular and vivid forms. Rothko started experimenting with abstract symbols in the early 1940s and then moved to entirely abstract fields of color. Newman's 'zip' paintings depicted vertical bands of color painted down the center of a canvas. This was done to unify rather than divide the piece.

Color field painters tried to rid their art of rhetoric. Instead, artists like Robert Motherwell used to articulate psychological concepts. These artists eliminated recognizable imagery and used symbols and signs as their replacements. 

Color field painters initially seemed to be doing away with the individual mark in favor of expansive, unbroken planes of color. They considered this and the actual shape of the canvas to be the essential nature of visual abstraction. However, color field painting proved to be both tangible and deeply expressive. 

Color field painters did not always use the same techniques. For instance, Still was one prominent color field painter using hot bursts and crackly lines of vivid hues. This technique differed from Rothko's more straightforward washes of color or Newman's thin lines. 


The loosely affiliated group of American artists in the early 1940s introduced radical new art ideas and directions in painting. Their revolutionary new approach to abstract art became known as Abstract Expressionism. It is a movement that had tremendous repercussions for many decades and made a comeback in the 1970s and 1980s with Neo-Expressionist artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Stores that specialize in reproduction paintings, such as 1st Art Gallery, can help art lovers find famous masterpieces of this style.