Abstract Expressionism is an art movement in mid-20th-century painting that was primarily concerned with the spontaneous assertion of the individual through the act of painting. The movement contains a variety of styles and is characterized more by the concepts behind the art than by a specific look. Generally, abstract expressionist art is without recognizable images and does not adhere to the limits of conventional form.
The roots of abstract expressionism are in the totally nonfigurative work of the Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky and that of the surrealists, who deliberately used the subconscious and spontaneity in creative activity. The arrival in New York City during World War II (1939-1945) of such avant-garde European painters as Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, and Yves Tanguy inspired the use of abstract expressionism among American painters in the 1940s and 1950s. American painters were also influenced by the subjective abstractions of the Armenian-born painter Arshile Gorky, who had immigrated to the United States in 1920, and by the German-born American painter and teacher Hans Hofmann, who stressed the dynamic interaction of colored planes.
The abstract expressionist movement centered in New York City and is also called the New York school. Although the styles embraced within abstract expressionism were as diverse as the styles of the painters themselves, two major tendencies were noted in the movement. Action painters were concerned with paint texture and consistency and the gestures of the artist, while color field painters gave their works impact by using unified color and shape. Jackson Pollock was the quintessential action painter. His unique approach to painting involved interlacing lines of dripped and poured paint that seemed to extend in unending arabesques. Willem de Kooning and Franz Josef Kline also were action painters; both used broad impasto brush strokes to create rhythmic abstractions in virtually infinite space. Mark Rothko created pulsating rectangles of saturated color in his works; many of these works are prime examples of color-field painting. Bradley Walker Tomlin, Philip Guston, Robert Burns Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, and Clyfford Still combined elements of both action and color-field painting in their works.
Abstract expressionism also flourished in Europe, where it influenced such French painters as Nicolas de Staël, Pierre Soulages, and Jean Dubuffet. The European abstract expressionist schools tachism (from the French word tâche, "spot"), which emphasized patches of color, and art informel (French for "informal art"), which rejected formal structure, had especially close affinities with New York action painting. Tachiste painters include the Frenchmen Georges Mathieu and Camille Bryen, the Spaniard Antoni Tàpies, the Italian Alberto Burri, the German Wols, and the Canadian Jean Paul Riopelle.