Editorial Feature

Discover The Works of Abstract Expressionism

Take a gallery tour and explore the artists who established the movement

Abstract Expressionism is a term applied to a movement in American painting that was developed in the 1940s and 50s. Work painted in this style is characterized by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity. One of the movement’s predecessors is Surrealism, having been inspired by the idea that art should come from the unconscious mind. This is also known as automatism, where art is a subconscious creation.

The original Abstract Expressionists were mostly based in New York City and also became known as the New York School. It was a term that grouped together the radical new art scene emerging in 1940s New York. Similar to Expressionism, the name refers to their aim to make art that was abstract and distorted reality, but remained expressive or emotional in its effect.

Though the term originated in New York, the work of the Abstract Expressionists can be seen around the world. So take a tour with us to see some of the work created during that time and to learn about the artists who championed the movement.

Group portrait of some of the American Abstract Expressionists by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

1. No.16, Jackson Pollock
MAM Rio, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Jackson Pollock was a major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement. His most famous paintings came from his drip period, which rocketed him to fame. Painted between 1947 and 1950, he used to place the canvases flat on the floor which allowed the artist to “walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting”. The process of dripping, pouring and splattering allowed Pollock to combine chance and control. The emotional turbulence is palpable when studying his works up close.

This particular painting, No.16, belongs to MAM Rio in Brazil, and is one of 32 that debuted in Pollock’s 1950 solo exhibition at Betty Parson’s New York gallery. Only one painting sold, but the show marked a breakthrough for Pollock and helped put him and other artists in the New York School collective on the map. Pollock was heavily influenced by his wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner. It’s said that her extensive training and knowledge in modern art and techniques helped her bring Pollock up to date with what contemporary art at the time should be.

No.16 by Jackson Pollock (From the collection of MAM Rio)
Jackson Pollock by Martha Holmes (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

2. Untitled, Mark Rothko
Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain

Mark Rothko was another central figure of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism, though he refused to adhere to any art movement. He adopted an abstract aesthetic to express basic human emotions like tragedy, ecstasy and doom. Having gone through several styles, Rothko’s multiforms, which first started out as a series, are what he’s become known for. In these works the artist gets rid of figurative forms and focuses purely on large expanses of color.

This painting, Untitled is a large scale mural and one of the first of many for the artist. Its horizontal position is unusual as Rothko tended to prefer a vertical format. Rothko intended viewers to experience his work in close proximity and the extended format of Untitled expands beyond the observer’s lateral field of vision, allowing the painting to seemingly open up and engulf the viewer.

Untitled by Mark Rothko (From the collection of Guggenheim Bilbao)

3. Villa Borghese, Willem De Kooning
Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain

Willem De Kooning was a Dutch artist who moved to the United States in 1926 and became an American citizen in 1962. He is often cited as the originator of Action painting, an abstract and instinctive form of painting, yet De Kooning most often worked from reality, primarily from figures and landscapes.

Towards the end of the 1950s, the artist turned towards landscapes as the basis for a series of abstract compositions. This painting titled, Villa Borghese, was based on the artist’s encounter with Rome, where he spent 5 months living in 1959. As well as the title, he alludes to the location through the bright, mediterranean colors used throughout. De Kooning’s interpretation of Abstract Expressionism sees him layer swatches of vibrant hues on top of each other and offer the viewer a purely subjective translation of a landscape.

Villa Borghese by Willem De Kooning (From the collection of Guggenheim Bilbao)
Willem De Kooning preparing a cup of coffee by James Burke (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection) 

4. Scene with Blue 6, Helen Frankenthaler
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, United States

Helen Frankenthaler was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting and was an Abstract Expressionist painter. As an active painter for nearly 6 decades, the artist went through several phases and stylistic shifts. Overall though, she is identified by her use of fluid shapes, abstract masses and lyrical gestures. Throughout her career, Frankenthaler placed an emphasis on spontaneity and once said: “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once”.

This painting titled Scene with Blue 6 sees the artist merge paint and canvas to create a sense of movement and flow. Frankenthaler invented the “soak-stain” technique in 1953 and it saw her make diluted oil paints saturate raw canvases. In this work she adapted the process by adding dynamic lines and spatters, which adds spontaneity.

Scene with Blue 6 by Helen Frankenthaler (From the collection of Chrysler Museum of Art)
Helen Frankenthaler in her studio by Gordon Parks (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection) 

5. PH-129, Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, United States

Artist Clyfford Still is credited with laying the groundwork for Abstract Expressionism with his shift from representational to abstract painting occurring between 1938 and 1942, years earlier than his peers Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Still’s non-figurative paintings are abstract and are largely concerned with juxtaposing different colors and surfaces in various formations. Unlike Rothko, who organized his colors in a simple block format, Still adopted a less regular approach. Instead he created flashes of color that looked as though layers had been torn off the painting to reveal other vibrant colors underneath. This style can be seen in the painting below, titled PH-129, where burnt ochre is sliced by stormy grays and pale lavender on a small canvas.

PH-129 by Clyfford Still (From the collection of Clyfford Still Museum)

6. Zinc Yellow, Franz Kline
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, United States

American painter Franz Kline is recognized as one of the most important yet problematic artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York. His style is difficult for critics to interpret in relation to his contemporaries because of the subtleties within his works. While he was also an adopter of Action painting, Kline often referred to his compositional drawings while making artworks. So unlike his peers, the artist’s works were only meant to look like they were done in a moment of inspiration. Instead though, each painting was extensively explored before his brush even touched the canvas.

In this painting, called Zinc Yellow, jagged black and yellow brushstrokes appear spontaneous. In fact, the painting is the result of careful planning and has a small oil study counterpart that was created first.

Zinc Yellow by Franz Kline (From the collection of Chrysler Museum of Art) 
Franz Kline by Fritz Goro (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

7. Passage, Philip Guston
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, United States

Painter and printmaker Philip Guston was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist like Franz Kline, although he preferred the term New York School. During this period in the 1950s Guston’s paintings, as seen in the work below, consisted of blocks and masses of gestural strokes and splotches of color floating in the frame. The artist used a relatively limited palette and favored black, white, gray, blue and red.

Later in his career during the 1960s, Guston helped lead a transition from Abstract Expressionism to Neo-Expressionism in painting. Neo-expressionists returned to portraying recognizable objects and abandoned so-called “pure abstraction”. Guston developed a more representational, cartoonish style which saw him render symbols, objects and his personal life into his works.

Passage by Philip Guston (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
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