Abstract Expressionism emerged in New York City in the 1940s and grew to prominence in the 1950s. During WWII many European artists fled to New York City to escape the Nazi regime, and their ideas influenced a new generation of American artists. These American artists created a new style based on spontaneous mark making and emotional expressivity. It is a style of painting that challenges traditional techniques and emphasizes individual expression. Abstract Expressionism took two forms: action painting and color field painting. Action painters, like Jackson Pollock, used large physical movements to apply paint in gestural marks. Color field painters, like Mark Rothko, filled their canvases with large swaths of color. Because of the influence of Abstract Expressionism, New York City, rather than Paris, became known as the center of modern art.
Abstract Expressionists were of a generation that had grown up during the Great Depression and WWII, and as a result their art emphasized freedom. The Surrealist concept of automatism inspired Abstract Expressionists. Abstract Expressionist painters were interested in spontaneous, instant creation as a way to tap into the creative unconscious. They used free uninhibited gestural marks, and freed themselves from traditional techniques and artistic conventions. Jazz music was also influential to Abstract Expressionism because of its freedom of improvisation.
Abstract Expressionism can be identified by the use of monumental canvases, abstract and nonobjective subject matter, and a lack of structured composition. Abstract Expressionists sought to break away from everything traditional. Some worked on canvases on the floor, used house paint, poured paint directly on the surface, and more— they rebelled against conventional techniques in every way they could. Within the Abstract Expressionism movement there are two main categories: action painting and color field painting. Action paintings were made with vigorous, physical marks like splatters and smears of paint. Some of these portray subject matter in abstracted unrealistic ways, while others are nonobjective. Color field paintings attempted to immerse the viewer in the expressivity of color by filling large canvases with it.
Abstract Expressionists were interested in personal expression, and painters associated with the movement were seen as rugged individualists. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Koonig, and Mark Rothko are a few of the most well known Abstract Expressionists. While the Abstract Expressionist movement was seen as very masculine and physical and dominated by white male artists, female artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner made important contributions to the movement. By the late 1950s younger artists felt there was no more room for experimentation within the movement, and it fell out of prominence.