10 Most Famous Abstract Expressionist Painters of All Time

An Abstract Expressionist painter is one who makes artworks that have no recognizable subject. Emerging in the 1940s, just before World War II, the abstract expressionism movement firmly placed New York City as the hub of western art and culture.

Painters in the Abstract Expressionist movement used a diverse range of nonconventional styles that vary in painterly techniques to freely express emotions that emanate from the spirit or the unconscious. Enormously influenced by the likes of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, this artistic movement would go on to dominate the art landscape for several decades.

The following are the 10 most famous Abstract Expressionist painters of all time.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock

Born in Cody, Wyoming, on January 28, 1912, Jackson Pollock was a renowned American painter and a leading artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Such was the novelty in his technique that many leading New York critics described him as one of the greatest painters of his era. He is most remembered for his famous ‘drip’ paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Before Pollock etched his name in the annals of renowned Abstract Expressionists, he was primarily a realist painter. Pollock would later incorporate styles and techniques from Mexican Muralism, Surrealism and Picasso’s Cubism. What this means is that Pollock had strong admiration for artists such as Paul Cézanne, Mexican Muralist José Clemente Orozco, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Thomas Hart Benton.

Encouraged by his therapist who was treating him for alcoholism, Pollock started painting figures freely from his subconscious. His paintings were considered some of the most unconventional paintings of the post-World War II era. They somewhat evoked the anxious nature of Pollock’s mind which was reeling from his own personal demons and the horrors of the world back then.

Pollock was as passionate any great painter of his era; however he was also a very impulsive painter. This allowed him to freely tap into his deepest emotions and different parts of his subconscious when painting. Famous paintings of Jackson Pollock include Going West (1934-1935), Guardians of the Secret (1943), Mural (1943), Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (1950).

Artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Morris, and Franz Kline were in some ways influenced by Jackson Pollock. His legacy lies in the fact that he paved the way for contemporary art styles. He viewed the art style as important as the art itself. This meant that he sought to paint without boundaries, often on unstretched raw canvases. Art Critic Clement Greenberg described Pollock as the best aesthetic value artist of his era.

From Left to Right: Guardians of the Secret (1943), Going West (1934-1935)

Did you know: Jackson Pollock worked in a Greenwich Village studio for about a decade?

Willem de Kooning

With famous paintings such as Seated Woman (c. 1940), Pink Angels (c. 1945), and Untitled (1948-1949), it comes as no surprise that the Dutch painter Willem de Kooning comes in second on our list of most celebrated Abstract Expressionist painters of all time.

Influenced by artists like Picasso, van Gogh and Mondrain, Willem de Kooning developed a very spirited and expressive technique in his paintings. His unconventional style, probably the most radical in the Abstract Expressionism movement, came as a result of merging styles from Surrealism and Cubism. Unlike the typical abstract expressionist who started with a figure and then ended with something abstract, Willem de Kooning tackled both the figure and the abstraction simultaneously. This approach of his allowed him to create some really impressive masterpieces.

De Kooning is most known for his never-ending quest to discover a variety of ways of painting, including new forms and figures. This pursuit of his allowed him to create heterogenous paintings that blended a number of elements from popular culture. Often termed as gestural eroticism, de Kooning’s colored and textured artworks had tremendous influence on artists such as Cecily Brown, Jack Whitten and Robert Rauschenberg.

Some notable artworks of de Kooning include Woman III (1951-53), Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point (1963), and Woman and Child (1967).

Willem de Kooning

Did you know: Famous art critic and Abstract Expressionist Elaine de Kooning (Elaine Fried) was the wife of Willem de Kooning?

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko is generally renowned figure in the Abstract Expressionism movement because his amazing rectangular forms painted on a stained area. His art career was one of experimentation with numerous styles until he settled on the abstract expressionist style.

A Russian-born (on September 25, 1903 in Dvinsk, then Russian Empire), Rothko was very self-expressive and sought to create images that overflowed with emotional content and ideas. As his career progressed, he became a big admirer of Color Field painting techniques to communicate transcendental experiences of the spirit or the unknown.

Mark Rothko

As an artist that sought complete freedom of expression, Mark Rothko was an inspiration to artists like Clyfford Still and Morris Louis. Some of his most memorable paintings include Untitled, Black on Gray (1969), The Rothko Chapel (1965), Oedipus (1944), and Crucifixion (1935).

Mark Rothko famous paintings (L-R): Untitled, Black on Gray (1969), and The Rothko Chapel (1965)

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still’s non-representational style used large fields of color to communicate the conflict humans have with nature

Clyfford Still was a Color Field Painting genius who was born in Grandin, North Dakota, on November 30, 1904. Prior to his move to Abstract Expressionism, his paintings were mainly influenced by American Regionalism and Surrealism styles. For example, his painting Untitled (Indian Houses, Nespelem) (1936) was laced with farm scenes.

Right from the early years in his career, the theme he used in his paintings was usually of man doing his best to survive the harsh conditions of nature. And even as an Abstract Expressionist painter, he was still able to use vertical forms to illustrate his theme of the human spirit in conflict with nature. He would later term this struggle as “the vertical necessity of life”.

His transition from obvious human forms and subject matter to abstract forms came in 1946. Still had relocated to New York and began painting unrecognizable subject matters in his paintings, which he often exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in Manhattan, New York. Known for seeking the art’s moral value, Clyfford Still’s non-representational style had enormous influence on the New York School artists who went on to become leading pioneers in the Abstract Expressionism movement.

Examples of Clyfford Still’s most famous paintings are Untitled (Indian Houses, Nespelem) (1936), Untitled (c. 1935), and 1948-C (1948).

Because of his strong oversight on how his paintings were sold and exhibited, many of his artworks stayed unpopular until around 2011, when a museum was built in Denver to display his work. He had such an argumentative character that he often locked horns with many critics and artists in the New York scene, including artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

Did you know: Clyfford Still was a teacher at Washington State for a good number of years?

Franze Kline

Franze Kline (born – May 23, 1910, died – May 13, 1962) was a Pennsylvania-born Abstract Expressionist painter who is most famous for using powerful sweeping black strokes on white canvas. He is seen by many as one of the greatest Abstract Expressionist painters because his artworks were made with a powerful confidence. This enabled him to paint unambiguously monumental forms from unconscious sources.

His formative years in the art world were nourished by the interactions he had with his instructors at Boston University School of Art. A big admirer of the great Dutch Painter Rembrandt (van Rijn), Franze Kline returned to New York after a brief spell in England, where he met his wife Elizabeth V. Parsons.

Around the early 1940s, Franze Kline began to appreciate the developments in the Abstract Expressionist movement after meeting fellow artists Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Kline’s paintings from then onward were less of figuration and more of gestural abstraction. He incorporated his signature black and white style into his paintings on the canvases.

Kline always maintained that his non-objective, broad black strokes on white paintings came from his unconscious. He debunked critics that said he took inspiration from Japanese calligraphy.

His gestural abstraction techniques made curator and poet Frank O’Hara describe him as one of the greatest archetypal Action Painters, along with the likes of de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Kline’s influence in the art world was palpable, having had a huge effect on many Minimalists, including sculptors like Donald Judd and Richard Serra.

Franze Kline always chose not to explain what his paintings meant; he preferred the viewers to come up with their own interpretation of the paintings. Therefore, his monumental gestural abstractions sought to create a very deep connection with the viewer. Some his most famous works include: Painting No. 7 (1952), Chief (1950), Four Square (1956), and Probst I (1960).

Philip Guston

“Painting and sculpture are very archaic forms…”, Canadian-American painter Philip Guston once said. To him painting was “…the only thing left in our industrial society where an individual alone can make something with not just his own hands, but brains, imagination, heart maybe.” Having taking a lot of inspiration from Mexican Muralism, Guston began his painting career as a social realist painter of murals in the 1930s. His paintings in that period usually delved into issues of anti-Semitism, fascism and racism.

The Montreal-born artist would then evolve as an artist, drawing inspiration from a number of Italian Renaissance art before finally making his big breakthrough as an Abstract Expressionist. He was an influential member of the 1950s-1960s New York School movement, making him one of the artists that helped make New York City the global hub for art and culture.

However, Guston did not stay permanently as an Abstract Expressionist. In the 1960s, he parted company with the movement to pursue an art style known as neo-expressionism. And although he had some unkind words against American Abstract painters, he still remains one of the greatest Abstract Expressionists of the 20th century. Some his most notable works include Gladiators (1938), Zone (1953-1954), and Last piece (1958).

Helen Frankenthaler

Regarded in the art world as one of the most revered artist of the 20th century, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) is most known for developing her own style within the abstract expressionism movement. Her style, the “soak-stain” technique, saw her pour paint thinned with turpentine onto the canvas. This allowed her to obtain delicate imagery and fluid shapes.

A renowned figure in the Color Field Painting, Helen Frankenthaler’s works served as huge inspiration to artists like Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. Some of her most notable works include Mountains and Sea (1952), Canyon (1965), and Madame Butterfly (2000).

Did you know: Helen Frankenthaler was married to Robert Motherwell from 1958 to 1971?

Barnett Newman

American artist and advocate for large fields of color in paintings, Barnett Newman was an influential figure in Abstract Expressionism. He viewed the painting process as one that emerges from the primitive unconscious. Prior to developing his abstract expressionist style, Newman made a number of paintings using Surrealism style. He viewed his unique style of painting as both a physical and metaphysical endeavour. According to him, the modern art styles made traditional art styles invalid. Additionally, Newman believed that the new styles also invalidated old standards of what made a painting beautiful.

At the start of his art career, his paintings did not receive much recognition; however,  it was only towards latter part of his career that he became a potent inspiration for second generation Color Field painters.

Examples of some of Barnett Newman’s most notable works are Onement I  (1948), Vir heroicus sublimis (1950-51), Canto VII (1963), Uriel (1954),  Abraham (1949), Broken Obelisk (1963-69).

Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell

Having attended prestigious schools such as Stanford University, Harvard and Columbia, Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) had the highest formal education of all the New York School painters (the 1950s and 1960s group of abstract expressionists and avant-garde artistes ranging from painters, dancers, poets, and musicians in New York City). Motherwell was also one of the youngest artists in the group.

Due to his educational background in philosophy and literature, Motherwell was able to communicate in his paintings themes that looked at human history and philosophy. Critics noted him for being able balance controlled and bold gestural brushstrokes in a manner that produced amazing paintings in simple shapes. It has been stated that Robert Motherwell’s biggest inspirational figures in the art world were Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

Famous visual art critic Clement Greenberg described Robert Motherwell as one of the most influential abstract expressionist painters.

Did you know: Robert Motherwell was such an eloquent speaker that he became spokesman for the Abstract Expressionism movement?

Arshile Gorky

Born in what was then the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey), Arshile Gorky held the view that his abstract paintings gave his mind the opportunity to see things that his eye could not see. As an Abstract Expressionist painter, Gorky felt emancipated by painting non-objective paintings which enabled him to “…extract the infinite out of the finite.”

In the Abstract Expressionism movement, Gorky is often given similar reverence as ones Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning receive. The Armenian-American artist’s style, which incorporated some forms of Surrealism, highlighted color in a very unique manner. His style also allowed him to share experiences from his childhood, including awful ones such as the Armenian Genocide. Artworks such as The Artist and His Mother (c. 1926-1936) and Agony (1947) generally communicated a message of his triumph over harrowing childhood experiences. Some other famous examples of Arshile Gorky’s paintings are The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944), Garden in Sochi (1943), Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations (1937), and Landscape in the Manner of Cézanne (1927).

Did you know: Arshile Gorky was a survivor of the Armenian genocide which was carried out by the Ottoman Turks?

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