Abstract Expressionist Painting
History, Description of the New York School.

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Abstract Expressionist Painting
New York School (1940s, 50s, 60s)


Gesturalism of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning
Colour Field Painting of Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still
Abstract Impressionism of Philip Guston
Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline

Important Art Works

Door to the River (1960)
Whitney Museum of American Art.
By Willem de Kooning. A good
example of his abstract gesturalism.

Orange And Yellow (1956).
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.
By Mark Rothko.
Example of colour field painting.

Lavender Mist (Number 1) (1950)
National Gallery, Washington DC.
By Jackson Pollock. One of the
greatest 20th century paintings.


The history of abstract expressionism in America (1940-60) was one of assimilation of the devices and aesthetic criteria of European avant-garde art, and then a growing independence from them. What began in the 1930s as a humble dialogue with the European tradition of abstract art, conducted in a spirit of self-education, became in the 1940s a passionate interrogation of self, unhistorical in character, striking for its pictorial liberties and the development of original expressive forms. When Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), Arshile Gorky (1905-48) and a number of their contemporaries sought in the early years of World War II to emancipate themselves both from the closed world of geometric concrete art (including styles like De Stijl and Neo-Plasticism) and from the image-suggestion of both representationalism and Surrealism, they suddenly found themselves in an unfamiliar territory, bereft of conventional signposts or prescribed procedures. These abstract painters had arrived at the unknown somewhat in the spirit of abnegation, but they conferred on their renunciation of the past, positive values of freedom and spontaneity. Free invention became its own justification and the picture plane, the physical reality of surface in all its concreteness, became its own mythology. The function of the image was reversed; it was detached from all objects in the external world, and became instead a vital graph of the artist's own expressionism; it reflected the self-sufficiency of the creative act. The abstracted image emancipated itself to an ever greater degree, until finally it denied its representational origins and took on an absolute value.

The changes and events that helped consolidate the new modern art of the early 1940s, form a great watershed in the evolution of contemporary American art in general, and the New York School in particular. While many American writers and the painters themselves have tended to emphasize the independent and native character of these developments, they also represent in the deepest sense the transplantation on American soil of some of the early ideals of European modernism. See also: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No.34
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
(1953-4) By Robert Motherwell.
Evocative gesturalism.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Clock (1956-57)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
By Philip Guston.
So-called "abstract impressionism".

See: History of Art.
For specifics, see: Art Movements.


In Abstract Expressionism; the artistic statement of the individual personality is subordinate to impersonal, objective principles, commonly held, and to a ceaseless boil of experiment in ever-changing directions. Although the movement already has its iconic abstract paintings, and its greater and lesser artists, it has also been able to maintain an atmosphere of dynamism, fluidity and change, because its most forceful participants have time and again resisted the temptation to settle into some static or over-individualized idiom. Its productions characteristically bear the mark of the incomplete, of vital approximations, and end with an open question, as if to insure its creators adequate liberty of gesture and to discourage mere mannerism. It is the persistent concern with impersonal plastic problems which ranks Abstract Expressionist among the foremost abstract art movements of the modern era. Such qualities link it to such early twentieth-century movements as Cubism.

The word "movement," however, has been steadfastly rejected by the artists engaged in a type of painting which in their view is best defined by its climate of vitality and a spontaneous ideal of freedom rather than by any prescribed technical procedures, shared subject matter, program or master-disciple relationships. This is but one among many paradoxes of this new type of non-objective art. Also paradoxical are the facts that the general style shows a deep regard for formal structure while apparently chaotic and indeterminate in appearance; that it focuses squarely on the objective, intrinsic appeal of material medium and yet is romantic in mood; that it is self-abnegating and self-fascinated at once; and that it depends on European precedent, even while it is jealous of its independence and aggressive in its self-determination. Many art critics have attempted to relate the idioms of the new painters to decorative wall painting and have seen in the new work a form of monumental decoration. But Robert Motherwell, a significant figure within the group, emphasizes the unique qualities of his work, as one notable example, and he has compared his painting to an "intimate journal." These are two apparently incompatible emotional atmospheres, until we recall that the progressive work of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and much subsequent turn-of-the-century painting, exemplified both decorative art and subjective symbolism. Perhaps Meyer Schapiro best described the relation of the new abstract painting to decoration when he wrote in connection with Pollock's painting: "A work like Pollock's Number 1 or his Autumn Rhythm is too powerful and earnest to serve as decoration. Only from a distant view, which loses sight of the intimate personal qualities of the surface and execution and all the passion and fantasy within the small areas, can one mistake the ornamental aspect for the essential trait of the whole."



These remarks were made in the course of a Third Program BBC broadcast, The Younger American Painters of Today, during the winter of 1956, on the occasion of the Museum of Modern Art's London exhibition, Modern Art in America. In the same radio talk Dr. Schapiro pointed significantly to a polarity of types in the new American abstract painting. His distinctions will help establish the common sources of a number of apparently dissimilar styles, and will illuminate those features of the new art which make the descriptive term, movement, both legitimate and appropriate. Dr. Schapiro described the gesturalist painting of Pollock and De Kooning as an art of "impulse and chance" and opposed it to that of Mark Rothko with its emphasis on sensation. "Each," he declared, "seeks an absolute in which the receptive viewer can lose himself, the one in compulsive movement, the other in an all-pervading, as if internalized, sensation of dominant colour. The result in both is a painted world with a powerful, immediate impact; in awareness of this goal, the artists have tended to work on a larger and larger scale - canvases as big as mural paintings are common in the shows in New York and indeed are the ones which permit the artists to realize their aims most effectively."

Later variants of abstract expressionism, which fall under the umbrella of Post-Painterly Abstraction, include: Hard-Edge Painting, Shaped Canvas and Minimalism. In Europe, abstract expressionism was known as Art Informel (formless art), which divided into a gesturalist wing, known as Tachisme (see also the COBRA group), and a softer style called Lyrical Abstraction.

Gesturalism of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning

Taking Dr. Schapiro's useful distinction as a point of departure, we may discern other characteristics of the two generic types of abstract painting and draw some conclusions about the differing viewpoints, and human values, supporting each. The headlong, linear gestural painting of Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning (1904-97) derive from automatism practised in the 20s and 30s by Surrealist artists (see automatism in art), but they embody a dynamic concept of the individual will operating in the here and now, and a faith in the efficacy of action.

Note: Early examples of the New York School's differing approaches to expressionism, include: Pasiphae (1943, Metropolitan Museum) by Pollock, and Seated Woman (1944, Metropolitan) by de Kooning.

For these two artists the revelation on canvas of the dynamics of the painting process assumes the character of a significant and vital action; the painting becomes a denuded, structural exposure in time and space of the artistic self engaged in a series of critical aesthetic episodes, choices and decisions. Because these decisions must be made under the stress of immediate feeling and have been divorced both from traditional artistic values of representation and from reliance on external nature, the artist is driven into a deeper communion with himself as the source of choice and action. It is not too far-fetched to say that the renunciation of naturalist illusion and the development of pictorial quality alone as the real content of the work of art have taken on the character of a profound spiritual commitment. The tensions of renunciation have opened up new modes of self-inquiry, wherein passion, disquiet and the individual's sense of existence are identified with the "act" of painting itself.

This does not necessarily mean that this new "action painting" is subjective or "confessional" in character. In fact the strict limits put on the expression of fantasy and psychological content suggest quite the opposite. Rather, the intense concentration on the concrete, material means and on formal values constantly translates all emotion into convincing, pictorial sensation. We are left finally with a vivid metaphor for a general dynamism and energy, and with a pictorial reality that is involved like ourselves in a constant and never-finished process of movement, development and change. In the midst of the formulation of dynamic new spatial concepts and the exaltation of the creative process as an occasion for free and sovereign action, there is nonetheless a sobering strain of desperation and violence in the new work. Jackson Pollock's paintings and those of Willem De Kooning move toward an extreme of skepticism and rejection. Rarely have the artists turned their backs so violently on conventional taste, seemliness and traditional pictorial accessories, even within modern European tradition. Rarely have they so unequivocally sought the raw, the unfinished and the indeterminate. The power of these two artists has been to make their rejections assume positive value and by their own explosive force to impose on us an artistic world so compelling that we no longer miss the familiar, transforming qualities of traditional art. The extreme liberties, and the spirit of revolt apparent in the paintings of Pollock and De Kooning place these works, in a vital relationship to some of the important philosophical problems of our period. The artists have voluntarily accepted new conditions for creating paintings - a series of radical reductions and eliminations in subject matter, image, association and stylistic device, as if to enable themselves to reach certain irreducible levels in the work of art and in the self. They have consciously submitted to a severe test; as a result, a sense of crisis and catharsis often pervades their work and may be an important part of its emotional atmosphere. The artist can find little support in the past, even in the immediate, modern past, and must, indeed, rely on little or nothing outside himself and his own actions. This mood need not betray itself in a sense of anguish and violent pictorial expression alone; it can also embrace more pacific attitudes and less vehement pictorial means, depending upon the individual.

For an explanation of some of the great 20th century abstract expressionist pictures, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

It is against this background of the drama of the individual revealing himself in the act of painting - an act vividly illustrated in the photographs of Jackson Pollock, taken by Hans Namuth - that Abstract Expressionism makes its most profound claims to seriousness. The elevation of the act of painting as a subject matter is a vital reminder that painting is made by the single individual for the single individual. Set in a framework of a problematic present, the artist's decisions on canvas take on the character of both an adventure into the unknown and the expression of his free individuality. No ready-made solutions are admissible; by mutual agreement, the pictorial illusions of the nineteenth century are relegated to the less serious 20th century painters. The essential renunciations of the Abstract Expressionists are transformed to embody new, expressive liberties and a new sense of individual responsibility. The extravagant regard for values of freedom often puts the artists beyond the conventional and at the limits of the permissible in painting, making wide popular interest in their art difficult. The contemporary abstract artists are of an almost religious temper in their sense of dedication, and will themselves into a highly conscious pictorial celibacy in defiance of traditional, nineteenth-century illusionism. In this latter-day artistic theology without a God, however, the strictness of asceticism has been modified by an ineradicable romantic impulse, by a taste for luxurious sensation and vagrant, distorted memories of the artistic past. Willem de Kooning's paintings in particular suggest that tradition cannot be so easily put aside. The velocity and violence of paint manipulation in his entirely abstract paintings seem inversely, by the fury of their attack, to pay the ghosts of a representational style their due. In the painting of Pollock and De Kooning free rein is given to impulse, fancy and a massive flow of material evidence of the untransformed painting process. Such painting suggests an "impure" attitude of mind which accepts chance, change and "action" - an art bound to time and duration. (See also the important role in Jackson Pollock's art played by his wife, Lee Krasner (1908-84) who may have co-invented "action painting.")

Colour Field Painting of Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still

At the opposite pole is the Colour Field Painting of such artists as Mark Rothko (1903-70), Clyfford Still (1904-80) and Barnett Newman (1905-70): a type of painting based on more pure and absolute attitudes of consciousness. Originally derived from "symbolist" modes, their art admits "accident" and unpremeditated effects only at the margins and seeks instead a more hieratic style that stands above contingency and chance: a non-temporal, starkly simplified and stable art. These artists play on resonant colour sensations and even more radically reduced pictorial content. They make contact with some harmonious sphere of feeling beyond the self. Indeed, their painting threatens to become an instrument of metaphysical knowledge, a mediator between the concrete present and some idealized, mysterious otherness. Both divergent groups of artists work in very large scale, striving for the impression of a total pictorial environment and for heroic design. More often than not the artist requires a large theater of operations to make his spatial intention clear. The paintings of De Kooning and Pollock continually reassert the individual's struggle with immediate and material facts, no matter how monumental their scale; they are a continuing demonstration of the self engaged in a conflicting pattern of choices and decisions. By contrast, the work of Rothko and Still, with its greater purity, comes to terms with the self more quickly and passes beyond its contending forces. Matter is refined into a luminous suspension which serves as a living sign of some secret inner harmony. The work itself often seems merely a phase of the effort to develop a permanent openness of the spirit to a new and elevated order of truth - a visual poetry of exaltation.

Both types of painting, essentially, are records of a moment of consciousness; exploding into restless motor activity on the one hand, or on the other, prolonged into a colouristic revene. If the painting of De Kooning and Pollock may be called one of commission, in which the artist doesn't hesitate to reveal himself, that of Still and Rothko is an art of omission, where more is suggested than stated. The first two artists employ emphatic line, and their paintings are energetic, richly complex and dynamic. The last two use colour stains or diffusions, or ragged, thickly pigmented drifting shapes; their art is quietist, bare and inert. Where this type of painting intimates and insinuates, that of De Kooning and Pollock insists and perhaps overstates for expressive emphasis. The paintings of Still and Rothko move from the abstract to the concrete. A certain quality of mystery and a residue of vague inwardness suggest the earlier preoccupation of both artists with myth, the primitive and symbolist abstraction.

Mark Rothko's paintings are built up from a few broad planes of thin colour wash arranged in parallel bands, giving the impression of both a polychrome plaque, awesome in scale, and of a luminous colour haze. Technically, Rothko's closest affinity is with the art of Matisse in the period of the Blue Window of 1911 or the Dance of 1910, a time when the French master sought what he described as a scheme of absolute colour within the limits of a few simplified planes. Rothko has added his own ardour, purity and monumentality to Matisse's scheme, and, of course, an unprecedented pictorial means. Within the severe limitations he put on the activity of shape, colour pigments and pictorial incident, he manages to attain a plenitude of sensation. If Rothko's art sometimes seems too contained in its aesthetic strictness, its uncompromising integrity also serves as a reproach to artists willing to settle for more arresting chance effects of handling and texture. At its deep and solemn best, his art is informed by a sense of great-tasks, and moves on the heights like that of another modern artist who challenged the absolute, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). Compare also the abstract geometrics of Josef Albers (1888-1976).

Rothko's painting style has evolved from a realist mode in the thirties to the grave and monumental inventions of the 1950s. He showed his first original style in the early 1940s, under the influence of the international Surrealist movement. He painted then in a nervously linear manner, utilizing a fantastic imagery and a variety of surface textures which seemed at the time related to the paintings of Max Ernst (1891-1976) and to the automatic writing of Andre Masson (1896-1987). There was something rather vague and provisional about his acceptance of Surrealism, however; Rothko's fanciful forms seemed to swim even then in a tonal atmosphere which dispersed and muffled their separate identities, and itself became the dominating pictorial impression. During the mid-40s he began to work with less explicit forms which resembled waving grasses and submarine vegetal life, and shortly were transformed into a purely abstract scheme of fine line and colour diffusions of a Whistlerian delicacy.

Then in 1947 Rothko eliminated recognizable forms defined by lines, building up his surfaces with irregular colour stains, high in key, which formed a complex of distinct, segmented areas. The reduced intensities at the edges of these areas served as a unifying transition between the separate, closely juxtaposed and clashing hues. With their softened, rectangular shapes, these zones of colour reiterated the horizontal and vertical as emphatic structural accents.

The chemical brilliance of Rothko's palette continued into 1949 and 1950, when he began to work in broad, parallel bars of colour of varied widths, extending them from the edges of his canvas, or setting solid blocks of tone against a continuous ground of contrasting hue. By giving a thinner consistency and increased luminosity to his rectangular masses at their edges, he preserved a sense of weightless suspension. The rigorous symmetries of his colour forms, which are invariably centered in a unified chromatic field, and the massive sense of space enclosure they convey, give Rothko's paintings an extraordinary architectonic power. (See also: Colour Theory in Painting.)

Beyond purely pictorial values, the basic rationalism of his method and the mood of ideal calm in his paintings have certain moral implications; they seem to embody an underlying ethical belief in the rational principle which governs the world of artistic form and natural life. Rothko's progress from individualized definition in his earlier work to a larger unity based on freer colour rhythms, has been part of a search for a transcendental reality. It is related to and illuminated by Mondrian's concept of "neo-plasticism", although few other points of contact exist between the two artists. Mondrian's injunction, "We must destroy the particular form," provided the most radical modern liberation from naturalism and was a step on the path to an art which, as he put it, would "reveal, as far as possible, the universal aspect of life." These aims, it would seem, have found a congenial contemporary application in the paintings of Mark Rothko. To paraphrase the words of the contemporary theologist, Martin Buber, the meeting with artistic grace can either be "a wrestling bout" or "a light breath." For Rothko it appears, deceptively, a light breath, whereas for Pollock and De Kooning it is a torment, a desperate wrestling bout or an occasion of orgiastic gaiety. But it should be noted that both Pollock and De Kooning achieve the grace of lightness as they wrest their art free from matter. And while Rothko seems to stand apart from his creations, which achieve an extraordinary impersonality and serenity, his works at the same time are the issue of much personal struggle, revision, and correction. Their material reality as concrete objects of sensation, which is intensely felt at every point in the work, dissociates them from any abstract idealism.

For a European perspective on Colour Field painting see Patrick Heron (1920-99), one of the few European exponents of this type of colour-drenched art.

Abstract Impressionism of Philip Guston

Since 1951 the paintings of Philip Guston (1913-80) provided a most interesting resolution of the two contrary pulls in contemporary abstraction, of the differences between "action painting" (the useful epithet originated by the poet critic Harold Rosenberg in his important article, The American Action Painters) and the more absolutist tendencies of Rothko and Still. Like those of Pollock and De Kooning, Guston's paintings forcefully testify to the creator's active presence in the work of art by the assertive texture and relief of the pigmented surface. However, the working of the surface is less a matter of impulse than of a series of tentative advances toward some more absolute state of being. In this state, the painting detaches itself from its creator and achieves the unity of a single, palpitating sensation, not dissimilar in effect from the saturated colours and splended sonorities of Mark Rothko's paintings.

Guston's paintings have been referred to as "abstract impressionist" because of their high-keyed, warm colours and a fluent brushwork that superficially suggest the late paintings of Claude Monet (1840-1926). But they have little to do with the visual in Monet's sense and their emphasis on plane, surface and raw pigment matter are uniquely a part of the general tendency of contemporary American abstraction. Although his handling is direct, positive and vital, Guston, by a process of alternately enriching and impoverishing his surfaces, achieves both an immediate splendor and a weakened echo of it - the direct heat of passion and the cooling, remembered ecstasy. This particular quality of his lyricism is the persisting link to his earlier, apparently dissimilar representational style of the 1940s. There clings subtly and tenaciously to many of his paintings an atmosphere of indolent voluptuousness which also points to his romantic sensibility. This vagrant hedonism, however, is strictly supervised, and subordinated to a rigorous formal intention. The luscious pigment celebrates its own occasions, but a sensual aestheticism is not invoked for its own sake alone; in fact it only forms the threshold of a further journey, an undertaking whose successful realization has nothing to do with the seductive appeals of medium. For Guston the act of painting is an onerous task which proceeds painfully from the habitual and customary to the unfamiliar, from old recognitions to new and unforeseen encounters, a complex creative progress toward a more meaningful goal of freedom. The drama of this search is less obviously stated in Guston's work than in some of the more spectacular ventures in contemporary American abstract art, but his canvases shine with their own serene and even light and must be placed in the company of the more grave, impressive work of their period. In terse and suggestive language Guston has described his experience before the evolving picture better than any intermediary could do, and has thus managed to put into words a matter most difficult to express.

In his work after 1956, Guston explored a more dramatic palette, identifiable shapes and intensified rhythms. These new paintings do not overpower but continue to insinuate their presence. They are not so much demonstrations of formal principle, non-imagistic though they may appear, as they are signs of privileged moments of consciousness - moments which have their source in great depths, in dreams and in the continuing struggle to achieve artistic certainty without doing violence to that nagging sense of uncertainty and disquiet which assails the most serious modern minds. At times, almost as a relief from the mortification of the act of painting, a dark, sardonic humour will erupt and spread wildly over the surface like an atmospheric disturbance, leaving a wake of tumbled shapes and discordant colour accents, and precipitating a whole new chain of formal metamorphoses. Guston is perhaps most closely allied in spirit to the Surrealists, although his painting methods are very different.

Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline

The formulation of a new ideology on the part of abstract painters and the evolution of new styles occurred within the decade after 1943. The period may generally be divided into two halves; to the years between 1943 and 1948 belong the rediscovery of Surrealism and the new synthesis with abstraction, a revived interest in "myth" and the primitive, and a growing sense of the autonomy of native tendencies. During this period such artists as Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still held their first one-man shows. Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Philip Guston, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, Esteban Vicente, and a whole new generation of younger painters emerged after 1948. The original band of innovators themselves gradually changed their styles after 1948, working in larger format and substituting, in their varied ways, more abstract qualities for the earlier concern with fantasy and chimerical subject matter. The fantasia of the unconscious gave way to a general dynamism; turgidity, to transparency; and the private obsession was dissolved in the epic, and in monumental designs. Beginning in 1948 the successive, brilliant one-man shows of Willem de Kooning had an incalculable impact on young painters. They renewed in a refreshing, painterly style the old antagonism between representational art and doctrinaire abstraction, but also after 1949 they sanctioned the reintroduction of naturalistic imagery. The suppression of colour in De Kooning's first one-man show and in paintings of an earlier period by Pollock and Clyfford Still found a favorable response in the commanding black-and-white canvases executed by Robert Motherwell in 1950, beginning with his Granada series, and then in the dramatic first one-man show of Franz Kline (1910-62) in 1950. Kline's simplified statements of aggressive, insect-like forms in his first exhibition and his even more drastic black grids in subsequent shows seemed at first glance raw, powerfully magnified enlargements of a section of the calligraphy of Bradley Walker Tomlin. Kline's forms, however, were charged with new velocities and energies, rather brutal energies released at collision point by skidding, ricocheting black bars of paint.

A new spatial dynamism declared itself quite miraculously without the resource of colour, depending solely on the weighted brush stroke, the thick or thin, shiny or matte streaks of black and white pigment. With Philip Guston's show of the same year, Kline's exhibition announced the last significant new extension of the radical abstract styles of the decade. Many other painters of the same generation - including Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74) - have skillfully refined the innovations of the immediate past with great individual distinction but few have made genuine discoveries of striking originality.

For the best of the second generation of abstract expressionists, see, for instance: the tachist Sam Francis (1923-94), the calligraphic late developer Mark Tobey (1890-1976), the colour stain painter Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928), the lyrical artist Nicolas de Stael (1914-1955), and the works of Frank Stella (b.1936), Jules Olitski (b.1922) and Kenneth Noland (b.1924).

The livelier young artists have thus far been intent mainly on assimilation, although a number of distinctly individual temperaments have already appeared on the scene and made their presence felt. A number of younger artists have tried to give a renewed vitality to naturalistic representation, while still retaining the spontaneity of expression and the improvisatory surfaces of Abstract Expressionism. This would seem to be less an index of some positive new painting alternative, however, than a limited, conservative reaction on the part of painters in whom the roots of the new idioms had not struck very deep. The paintings of Pollock and De Kooning on the one hand, and Rothko and Still on the other, continue to define the antipodes of the most vital American painting.

Supporters and Critics of the New York School
In addition to the positive input of influential art critics like Clement Greenberg (1909-94) and Harold Rosenberg (1906-78), one should not underestimate the vital role played by influential American dealers and art collectors - including Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), and Leo Castelli (1907-99) - both of whom were active supporters of the new movement. A famous critic was John Canaday (1907-85), art columnist of the New York Times.

Paintings by artists of the New York School can be seen in a number of the best art museums in America and Europe.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Modern American Painting and Sculpture (Bell), by Sam Hunter.

• For a chronological guide to the evolution of abstract painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about 20th century American painters, see: Homepage.

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