The Modern World During and After the World Wars, C. 1914–1960

American Art and the Influence of Europe

Who were (some of) the Abstract Expressionists?

  • Willem de Kooning (1904–1997): De Kooning was a Dutch immigrant to America who greatly inspired the American artists he encountered in New York city. Considered part of the “New York School” of abstract expressionists, his work is characterized by aggressive brushstrokes and partial abstraction. One of his most famous works is Woman I (1950–1952), which he repeated a number of times. The painting depicts a large-eyed, aggressive woman with a wide, toothy smile and a wild, abstract form. The energy of de Kooning’s work aligned the artist with action painters and his work made a major impact on twentieth-century American modernism.
  • Arshile Gorky (1905–1948): Gorky was an Armenian American painter whose early Cubist-Surrealist style influenced the abstract expressionists. His painting Garden in Sochi (c. 1943) shares similarities with the bio-morphic abstraction of Henry Moore.
  • Hans Hofmann (1880–1966): Born in Germany, Hofmann was an art teacher who introduced a new American generation to European modernism. His work, as exemplified in The Gate (1959–1960) is bold and colorful, and emphasizes visual structure and color relationships.
  • Franz Kline (1910–1962): Kline’s work was large and he is particularly well known for his white canvases slashed with aggressive, black brushstrokes. These works evoke Chinese calligraphy, and draw attention to the dynamic power and structural qualities of the brushstroke.
  • Robert Motherwell (1915–1991): Motherwell was a member of the New York School and was inspired by Surrealist automatism and European modernism. He was a writer and a teacher, and had an intellectual approach to abstraction. He painted the series, Elegies to the Spanish Republic, throughout his long career. These works served as philosophical mediations on the nature of loss, death, and visual form.
  • Lee Krasner (1911–1984): Lee Krasner was an important abstract expressionist painter and the wife of Jackson Pollock. She was highly critical of her own work, even occasionally destroying finished pieces. She produced large, gestural paintings such as The Seasons (1957).
  • Barnett Newman (1905–1970): Newman was an important color-field painter whose work often features a “zip” or long, thin, vertical line of color painted against a boldly colored background. Newman’s “zip” has been likened to an obelisk. Newman searched for the sublime through overwhelming fields of pure color.
  • Jackson Pollock (1912–1956): Pollock is one of the most enduringly popular abstract expressionists, known for his aggressive painting style and technique of splattering paint directly on to the canvas. He laid his paintings flat on the ground, and walked over them with back bent, applying paint directly. While it seems like his paintings would be chaotic, their overall effect is often rhythmic and contemplative.
  • Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967): Reinhardt was known for making “art-as-art,” and emphasizing the separation between art and life. He distilled his paintings to a single color and his later paintings are completely black, with no trace of a brushstroke. This was done in an attempt to completely separate the work from the act of its creation.
  • Mark Rothko (1903–1970): Rothko was interested in emotional and spiritual communication in his large color-field paintings. The monumental canvases of Mark Rothko feature soft-edge areas of rich color where different hues never quite touch one another, creating a tension Rothko linked to tension within human relations. Rothko’s paintings are infused with spirituality and psychological ambiguity.
  • Clyfford Still (1904–1980): Still was also a color-field painter, though his works are more aggressive than Rothko’s due to jagged areas of color, varied textures, and juxtaposed hues. His massive paintings have been equated with landscapes.
  • Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011): Though she used oil and acrylic paint, Frank-enthaler’s large paintings have the look of watercolor, with stained canvas and large areas of fluid color. Staining produces an almost textureless, open space within the canvas that garnered her the support of modernist critic, Clement Greenberg.

Abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler used a staining technique to create her fluid abstractions, such as April (1963). (Art courtesy The Bridgeman Art Library, © 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York.)


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Art History Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App