artists who started abstract expressionism
The problem was that the two main art movements of the 1930s – namely, Regionalism and Social Realism – failed to satisfy their desire for a break with current thinking. In this, they were strongly influenced by the arrival of numerous modern artist refugees from Europe, whose radical approach to art opened up a series of new possibilities.
TWENTIETH CENTURY ARTISTS
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Explore how sculptors took on the challenges of Abstract Expressionism
Discover the innovative tecniques of Abstract Expressionist painters
Abstract Expressionism, broad movement in American painting that began in the late 1940s and became a dominant trend in Western painting during the 1950s. The most prominent American Abstract Expressionist painters were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko. Others included Clyfford Still, Philip Guston, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, Bradley Walker Tomlin, William Baziotes, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Pousette-Dart, Elaine de Kooning, and Jack Tworkov. Most of these artists worked, lived, or exhibited in New York City.
Abstract Expressionism had a great impact on both the American and European art scenes during the 1950s. Indeed, the movement marked the shift of the creative centre of modern painting from Paris to New York City in the postwar decades. In the course of the 1950s, the movement’s younger followers increasingly followed the lead of the colour-field painters and, by 1960, its participants had generally drifted away from the highly charged expressiveness of the Action painters.
The abstract expressionists were 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: the so-called action painters, who attacked their canvases with expressive brush strokes; and the colour field painters who filled their canvases with large areas of a single colour.
Many modern-day art historians believe that his emphasis on action leaves out another side of Abstract Expressionism: control vs. chance. Historians posit that Abstract Expressionism comes from three major sources: Kandinsky’s abstraction, the Dadaist’s reliance on chance, and the Surrealist’s endorsement of Freudian theory that embraces the relevance of dreams, sexual drives ( libido) and the authenticity of ego (unfiltered self-centeredness, known as narcissism), which this art expresses through “action.”
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) became known as “Jack the Dripper” because of his drip-and-spatter technique that fell upon a canvas laid out horizontally on the floor. Willem de Kooning (1904-1907) used with loaded brushes and garish colors that seemed to collide rather than settle down into co-existence. Mark Tobey (1890-1976) “wrote” his painted marks, as if he were inventing an unintelligible alphabet for an exotic language that no one knew or would ever bother to learn. His work was based on his study of Chinese calligraphy and brush painting, as well as Buddhism.
While New York and the world were yet unfamiliar with the New York avant-garde by the late 1940s, most of the artists who have become household names today had their well-established patron critics: Clement Greenberg advocated Jackson Pollock and the color field painters like Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and Hans Hofmann; Harold Rosenberg seemed to prefer the action painters such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, as well as the seminal paintings of Arshile Gorky; Thomas B. Hess, the managing editor of ARTnews, championed Willem de Kooning.
Technically, an important predecessor is surrealism, with its emphasis on spontaneous, automatic, or subconscious creation. Jackson Pollock’s dripping paint onto a canvas laid on the floor is a technique that has its roots in the work of André Masson, Max Ernst, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The newer research tends to put the exile-surrealist Wolfgang Paalen in the position of the artist and theoretician who fostered the theory of the viewer-dependent possibility space through his paintings and his magazine DYN. Paalen considered ideas of quantum mechanics, as well as idiosyncratic interpretations of the totemic vision and the spatial structure of native-Indian painting from British Columbia and prepared the ground for the new spatial vision of the young American abstracts. His long essay Totem Art (1943) had considerable influence on such artists as Martha Graham, Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.  Around 1944 Barnett Newman tried to explain America’s newest art movement and included a list of “the men in the new movement.” Paalen is mentioned twice; other artists mentioned are Gottlieb, Rothko, Pollock, Hofmann, Baziotes, Gorky and others. Motherwell is mentioned with a question mark.  Another important early manifestation of what came to be abstract expressionism is the work of American Northwest artist Mark Tobey, especially his “white writing” canvases, which, though generally not large in scale, anticipate the “all-over” look of Pollock’s drip paintings.
Clyfford Still – PH-129, 1949. Oil on canvas, 53 x 44 1/2 inches (134.6 x 113 cm). Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO. © City and County of Denver / ARS, NY
Arshile Gorky – The Leaf of the Artichoke Is an Owl, 1944. 28 x 35 7/8″ (71.1 x 91.2 cm). Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund. © 2019 Estate of Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York