Abstract Expressionism: Research Point

for further development linked to Assignment 4 and work on Maggi Hambling


Anfam, D., Ed. (2017). Abstract Expressionism. London, Royal Academy of the Arts. Book from the 2017 exhibition.
Tate Gallery
The Art Story.org

Abstract expressionism is the term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters in the 1940s and 1950s, 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.

Within abstract expressionism were two broad groupings:

  • Action painters : Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning who attacked their canvases with expressive brush strokes. They worked in a spontaneous improvisatory manner often using large brushes to make sweeping gestural marks,  or pouring paint over the surface directly placing their inner impulses onto the canvas.
  • Colour field painting : Mark RothkoBarnett Newman and Clyfford Still who created simple compositions with large areas of more or less a single flat colour intended to produce a contemplative or meditational response in the viewer.

Several important female Abstract Expressionists from New York and San Francisco like Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner now receive credit as elemental members of the canon.

Key Ideas

  • influenced by Surrealism’s focus on mining the unconscious, interest in myth and archetypal symbols, understanding of painting itself as a struggle between self-expression and the chaos of the subconscious.
  • influenced by leftist politics, and value an art grounded in personal experience.
  • emphatically American in spirit – monumental in scale, romantic in mood, and expressive of a rugged individual freedom.

Women artists in abstract expressionism