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Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionist artists reinvented abstract painting—and other media—forming a distinctly American style.

The Processes and Materials of Abstract Expressionist Painting

Discover the innovative tecniques of Abstract Expressionist painters

Abstract Expressionism: A New Art for a New World

After the atrocities of World War II, many artists felt that the world needed to be reinvented

The Sublime and the Spiritual

Abstract Expressionists used color and scale to create a sense of spirituality and the sublime

Abstract Expressionist Sculpture

Explore how sculptors took on the challenges of Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionist painters explored new ways of creating art, reinvigorating and reinventing the medium. They changed the nature of painting with their large, abstract canvases, energetic and gestural lines, and new artistic processes. Many artists experimented with nontraditional materials, such as commercial paints and housepainter’s brushes. Artists also developed new techniques to apply paint, such as moving the canvas from the easel to the floor and working on unstretched and unprimed canvas. With these unconventional ways of painting, the Abstract Expressionists sought new forms of self-expression and personal freedom in their work.

Chaos and control

Jackson Pollock is perhaps the most well-known Abstract Expressionist, famous for his mural-sized action paintings. Placing the canvas on the floor, Pollock would drip, splatter, fling, and smear paint from all sides. But despite the seemingly spontaneous appearance of his paintings, Pollock, like other Abstract Expressionists, maintained a balance of chaos and control. For example, Franz Kline’s large black-and-white canvases seem impulsive and full of energy, but he often sketched the compositions out first. A critic once wrote of Pollock’s work, “It is easy to detect the following things in all of his paintings: Chaos. Absolute lack of harmony. Complete lack of structural organization. Total absence of technique, however rudimentary. Once again, chaos,” to which the artist replied, “No chaos, damn it.”1 Pollock claimed that he maintained control when making his drip paintings.

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

Kirk Varnedoe, Jackson Pollock (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 70.
Jackson Pollock, quoted in Kirk Varnedoe, Jackson Pollock (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 48.

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

A rough or unfinished version of any creative work, often made to assist in the completion of a more finished work (noun); to make a rough drawing or painting (verb).

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

Cotton or linen woven cloth used as a surface for painting.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.

A long mark or stroke.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

The technique and resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued to a supporting surface.

The process of creating art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.

A term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 to describe the work of artists who painted with gestures that involved more than just the traditional use of the fingers and wrist to paint, including also the arm, shoulder, and even legs. In many of these paintings the movement that went into their making remains visible.

Jackson Pollock on his process
Jackson Pollock stated: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”2


Questions & Activities

  1. Line Dictionary

    Pollock, Frankenthaler, Kline, and de Kooning are all known for their use of expressive lines. Look at their paintings and write a list of adjectives to describe the different lines you see. Draw lines that correspond with the words. Pair up with a partner and compare each person’s line dictionary. Do you agree on which words describe each line?

  2. Make a Collage

    Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock sometimes incorporated unusual elements into their paintings. Kline collaged telephone book pages to make Untitled II, and Pollock embedded nails, coins, buttons, and even cigarettes in Full Fathom Five. Create your own collage that features a person and reveals something about his or her emotion or state of mind. Start with images cut out of magazines and newspapers. Think about subject matter, style, and composition, and then come up with a title for your work.

  3. Debate: Chaos vs. Control

    Working with a partner, discuss the tension between chaos and control in Abstract Expressionism. Each person should choose a statement below and defend it in a debate. In developing your argument, consider artists’ materials and process.

    Statement 1: Abstract Expressionism is governed by chaos and spontaneity.
    Statement 2: Abstract Expressionism is about control and order.

  4. From Figuration to Abstraction

    Franz Kline turned to abstraction after making a drawing of a rocking chair. He projected the image onto a wall and was fascinated by how portions of the magnified image became abstract. In this activity, use a viewfinder and an image from a magazine to make your own abstract work.

    A viewfinder on a camera is a device that allows a person to see what the lens will capture in a picture. When sketching, you can use a paper viewfinder to help you identify what area of a scene you want to draw.

    Make a viewfinder by cutting a rectangle—1 inch by 1 ¼ inch—in the middle of an index card, or print the viewfinder template and cut along the dashed lines. You can download the viewfinder template from the pull-down menu at the top of this screen.

    Find an image in a magazine or a newspaper. Use the viewfinder to identify an area of the image that has an interesting composition, considering elements such as line, shape, and color.

    Draw the section of the image you have chosen on a piece of paper, making sure to enlarge the image. When you’re done, compare the original image to your abstract drawing.

  5. de Kooning and the Representation of Women

    Research. Visit the website for the National Museum of Women in the Arts and do some reading about how artists have depicted women throughout history. Then pick a work made by a woman from the NMWA’s collection and consider how this artist represents women in her work. Compare and contrast this artist’s approach to her subject with de Kooning’s Woman, I.

    Reflect. Write a two-page essay explaining your findings.