This Is Abstract Expressionism: The Movement Defined in 5 Artworks

Abstract Expressionism is one of America’s most profound and influential art movements, opening up inventive new channels of self-expression. Here we examine 5 iconic artworks of the era.

Jan 6, 2021By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
abstract expressionism
Composition by Willem de Kooning, 1955; with Sic Itur ad Astra (Such Is the Way to the Stars) by Hans Hofmann, 1962; and Desert Moon by Lee Krasner, 1955


Abstract Expressionism is one of the most celebrated and significant art movements of the 20th century. Emerging out of post-war New York in the 1940s and 1950s, the spontaneous freedom and huge-scale ambition of the Abstract Expressionists turned the United States into an art world superpower. Though diverse in style, these artists were united in their free-spirited, bravado approach to painting, which rejected traditional representation for improvisation and the expression of inner emotions. 


These acts of self-expression were often filled with angst and aggression, capturing the widely felt anxieties and traumas across society in the wake of the war, and a desire to escape reality for a higher realm. From the gestural action painting of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler to the trembling emotional resonance of Mark Rothko, we examine five of the most profound paintings that came to define Abstract Expressionism. But first, let’s recap on the history that paved the way.


The History Of Abstract Expressionism

sic itur ad astra hans hofman
Sic Itur ad Astra (Such Is the Way to the Stars) by Hans Hofmann, 1962, via The Menil Collection, Houston


In the early 20th century, Europe was the bubbling epicenter of international art trends, but this was all set to change. Revolutionary ideas from Europe began spreading into the United States throughout the 1930s, first through a series of survey exhibitions which celebrated avant-garde -isms including Dadaism and Surrealism, followed by solo presentations on artists including Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky. But it was when artists began emigrating from Europe to the United States during the war including Hans Hofmann, Salvador Dalí, Arshile Gorky, Max Ernst and Piet Mondrian that their ideas really began to take hold. 


German painter Hans Hofmann would prove particularly influential. Having worked alongside Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse, he was well placed to bring fresh ideas across the continent. The Surrealist art of Max Ernst and Salvador Dali which focused on the expression of the inner mind also undoubtedly influenced the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. 


jackson pollock studio lee krasner
Jackson Pollock in his home studio alongside his wife Lee Krasner,  via the New Orleans Museum of Art

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Along with these influences from Europe, within the United States many artists who went on to become Abstract Expressionists began their careers painting large scale figurative, public art murals influenced by Social Realism and the Regionalist Movement. These experiences taught them how to make art based on personal experience, and gave them skills working on the vast scales that would come to define Abstract Expressionism. Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Willem de Kooning were among the first to create a new brand of ambitious, expressive American painting which proved hugely influential, first in New York, before spreading throughout the United States. By the late 1940s all eyes were on the US, where a bold and brave new brand of art spoke of unchartered creativity and freedom, powerfully emotional self-expression, and the dawn of a new era.


1. Jackson Pollock, Yellow Islands, 1952

jackson pollock yellow islands
Yellow Islands by Jackson Pollock, 1952, via Tate, London


Renowned New York-based painter Jackson Pollock’s Yellow Islands, 1952, typifies the artist’s pioneering style of ‘Action Painting,’ a strand of Abstract Expressionism which involved the entire artist’s body in its making, tying it closely to performance art. This work belongs to Pollock’s series of ‘black pourings,’ in which Pollock applied dribbles of watered-down paint to a canvas laid flat onto the floor while moving his hands and arms in a series of fluid, flowing rhythmic patterns. Paint is built up in a series of intricate and complex web-like networks that overlap one another, creating depth, movement and space. 


Working directly onto the floor allowed Pollock to walk around the painting, creating an area he called ‘the arena.’ In a further twist from earlier work, Pollock also lifted this particular canvas upright to let paint run in a series of black vertical drips in the center of the work, adding greater texture, movement and the forces of gravity into the work.

2. Lee Krasner, Desert Moon, 1955

lee krasner desert moon
Desert Moon by Lee Krasner, 1955, via LACMA, Los Angeles


American painter Lee Krasner’s Desert Moon, 1955 was made as one of a series of mixed media works which combined collage and painting together into single images, as influenced by the European ideas in Cubist and Dadaist art. Like many Abstract Expressionists, Krasner had a self-destructive streak, and she would often tear or cut apart old paintings and use the broken fragments to construct fresh new images. This process allowed her to combine the clean lines and white streaks of cut or torn edges with fluid and sticky painterly marks. Krasner also loved the striking visual impact that could be created by combining jarring color contrasts together – in this work we see angry, sharp shards of black, hot pink and lilac streaking across an iridescent orange backdrop, laid down in a playful and improvised manner to create lively dynamism and movement. 


3. Willem De Kooning, Composition, 1955

composition willem de kooning
Composition by Willem de Kooning, 1955, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York 


In Willem de Kooning’s Composition, 1955 expressive swipes and slabs of paint are tangled together into a wild flurry of intense activity. Like Pollock, de Kooning was dubbed an ‘Action Painter’ because of his frenzied, gestural brushstrokes that invoke the energized movement involved in their making. This work typified the mature phase of his careerwhen he had largely abandoned his earlier Cubist structures and female figures in favor of a more fluid and experimental abstraction. Reality is abandoned entirely for the improvised play of color, texture and form, invoking the artist’s inner, angst-ridden emotions. In this work, de Kooning also integrated sand and other gritty substances to the paint to give it a more visceral, muscular body. It also gives the work a texture that projects outwards from the canvas into the space beyond, further emphasizing the aggressive and confrontational nature of the work.


4. Helen Frankenthaler, Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973

helen frankenthaler nature abhors vacuum
Nature Abhors a Vacuum by Helen Frankenthaler, 1973, via the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


American painter Helen Frankenthaler’s Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973, demonstrates the sensuously flowing rivulets of pure color that came to define her practice. Known as a ‘second generation’ Abstract Expressionist, Frankenthaler’s working method was greatly influenced by Jackson Pollock; she, too worked with canvas flat on the floor, pouring watery passages of acrylic paint directly onto raw, unprimed canvas. This allowed it to soak deep into the weave of the fabric and form intense pools of vivid color loaded with emotional resonance. Leaving the canvas raw brought a light and airy freshness into her paintings, but it also emphasized the flatness of the painted object, echoing the ideas of American art critic Clement Greenberg, who argued that true modernist painters should focus on the ‘purity’ and physicality of the painted object.

5. Mark Rothko, Red on Maroon, 1959

red on maroon mark rothko
Red on Maroon by Mark Rothko, 1959, via Tate, London


One of the best-known paintings of the Abstract Expressionist era, Mark Rothko’s Red on Maroon, 1959, is seeped with intense color and brooding drama. In contrast with Pollock and de Kooning’s macho ‘Action Painting,’ Rothko belonged to a branch of Abstract Expressionists who were more concerned with conveying deeply felt emotions in subtle color schemes and expressive passages of paint. Rothko hoped his trembling brushstrokes and thin veils of color painted onto wall-sized canvases could transcend ordinary life and lift us into the higher, spiritual realm of the sublime, as influenced by the atmospheric effects in art of the Romanticist and Renaissance periods. 


This particular painting was made as part of a series known as The Seagram Murals, which were originally designed for the Four Seasons Restaurant in Mies van Der Rohe’s Seagram building in New York. Rothko based the color scheme of the Seagram series on Michelangelo’s vestibule in the Laurentian Library in Florence, which he visited in 1950 and 1959. There, he was overwhelmed by a dark and all-encompassing sense of claustrophobia, a quality which is brought alive in this painting’s moody, glowering atmosphere.


Legacy Of Abstract Expressionism

onement vi barnett newman
Onement VI by Barnett Newman, 1953, via Sotheby’s


The legacy of Abstract Expressionism reaches far and wide, continuing to shape much of today’s contemporary painting practice. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Color Field movement grew out of Abstract Expressionism, extending Mark Rothko’s ideas around the emotional resonances of color into a cleaner, purer language, as demonstrated by Barnett Newman’s slick, minimal ‘zip’ paintings and Anne Truitt’s sculptural columns of iridescent color.


cecily brown untitled
Untitled by Cecily Brown, 2009, via Sotheby’s


Abstract Expressionism was largely replaced by Minimalism and Conceptual Art in the 1970s. However, in the 1980s the Neo-Expressionist movement in Europe and the US led by German painter George Baselitz and American artist Julian Schnabel combined abstract painterliness with narrative figuration. Messy, expressive painting fell out of fashion again in the 1990s, but in today’s complex realm of contemporary art, various approaches to painterly abstraction and expression are more prevalent and popular than ever. Rather than focussing exclusively on the inner workings of the artist’s mind, many of today’s most prominent expressive painters combine fluid and aqueous paint with references to contemporary life, bridging the gap between abstraction and representation. Examples include Cecily Brown’s erotic, semi-figurative abstractions, and Marlene Dumas’ strange, haunting worlds populated by bizarre and unsettling scenarios. 


Author Image

By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.