Abstract Expressionism (AbEx) Title

Abstract Expressionist New York

May 28 - September 4, 2011


For the first time ever, an unrivaled collection of Abstract Expressionist masterpieces is leaving New York City. This monumental show features the legendary artists who dripped, splattered, and painted in fields of incredible colour. As the political traumas of their time reverberated around them, they placed their massive canvasses on floors and walls, creating artwork that exploded into life with spectacular vision and changed the course of art history forever.

Drawn entirely from the Museum of Modern Art’s definitive collection, Abstract Expressionist New York features more than 100 key works from Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner and others. The exhibition celebrates the monumental achievements of a generation of artists who catapulted New York to the centre of the international art world in the 1950s and left as their legacy some of the 20th century’s greatest masterpieces.


“It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own techniques.” – Jackson Pollock

Abstract Expressionism was an American painting movement that flourished in the 1940s and ‘50s. More than sixty years have passed since the critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker in 1946, first used the term “Abstract Expressionism” to describe the richly coloured canvases of Hans Hofmann. Over the years, the name has come to designate the paintings and sculpture of artists as different as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and David Smith.

As you experience the artworks in the show, you will see there is no one style that they all share. The range goes from work that is incredibly gestural, aggressive and high- energy to work that is very silent and contemplative. Although the work of each Abstract Expressionist artist was highly individualistic and distinct, they all shared a common sense of purpose — to create a new beginning for art.

This was a generation of artists who had just come through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and who had witnessed the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb. Instead of falling into despair, they sought to invent a new language of art, which by extension would imply a new culture, a new civilization and a new beginning for humankind in general.

Abstract painting was not new, but large–scale abstraction was the breakthrough of this group — artmaking was no longer confined to the canvas on an easel. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler unrolled their canvases on the floor and used their entire bodies to paint. Painting became choreography. The scale of the works the Abstract Expressionists produced literally declared the artists’ belief that what they were doing was big. They used the canvas as “an arena in which to act” rather than as a place to produce an object. In his famous 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters,” art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”

Following the pioneering “drip” paintings of Jackson Pollock, artists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman developed their own distinct visual vocabularies. Where Pollock and de Kooning used agitated gestures in paint to convey the urgency of their vision, Rothko and Newman relied upon fields of colour to envelop sight and transport the viewer to new realms of emotion and perception.

Visitors to this exhibition will come face-to-face with exhilarating artworks that changed the course of modern art. The diverse works on view in Abstract Expressionist New York display the intense originality of a diverse group of artists, including painters Helen Frankenthaler, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Robert Motherwell; photographers Robert Frank and Harry Callahan; and sculptors Louise Bourgeois, David and Isamu Noguchi. This exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to experience firsthand the creative ingenuity that made New York the centre of the art world.

Complete Exhibition Text

Download complete text of the exhibition (PDF, 1.9MB) before you visit to read on your smart phone or tablet while in the exhibition. Or enjoy it afterwards in the comfort of your own home.

AbEx Family Activity Guide

A great way for families to work together to experience this exhibition, this family activity guide offers activities, questions for guided looking and suggestions for exploration. Download the Ab Ex Family Activity Guide (PDF, 76.4MB) prior to your visit or pick one up on your way into the show.

Press releases



Jackson Pollack

“Every good artist paints what he is.” – Jackson Pollock

During the late 1940s, Jackson Pollock’s radical approach to painting revolutionized what it meant to create art. By dripping, flinging and spattering paint onto his canvas laid onto the floor, he refuted centuries of tradition. No longer using an easel or even brushstrokes, Pollock used actions that engaged his entire body. He described it as “energy and motion made visible.” As one critic described it, the canvas was used an “an arena in which to act,” with painting becoming choreography. In an indication of the works’ radicality, after completing a new piece, Pollock asked his wife Lee Krasner, “Is this a painting?”

He was the first abstract painter lauded by the American mass media, and his celebrity was instantaneous. Like many of his peers, Pollock’s innovation came with profound self-doubt. Battling with alcoholism and depression, his meteoric career abruptly ended one night in 1956, when he crashed his Oldsmobile convertible and was killed. He was 44.

  • Born 1912, in Cody, Wyoming, the youngest of five boys. Family later moves to California. 
  • Jackson follows two of his brothers to New York in 1930, and enrolls at the Art Students League like one of them. Studies with famed American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton who became his mentor.
  • Throughout 1930s, interested in mural movement, attends Benton’s mural class, participates in exiled Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros’s workshop and is employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural division.
  • First solo show at Peggy Guggenheim’s new gallery “Art of This Century” in 1943, fifteen oil paintings and several works on paper.
  • Marries artist Lee Krasner in 1945 and moved to a farmhouse in The Springs, East Hampton. Gallerist Peggy Guggenheim lends them the downpayment.
  • In 1946, paints on a canvas attached to a curtain stretcher laid on the bedroom floor, created his work The Key, a career breakthrough. Later in the year begins drip paintings.
  • Rockets to widespread fame in 1949 following a four-page spread in LIFE magazine that asked, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"
  • First museum solo exhibition in 1950 at the Museo Correr Venice, travels to the Galleria d’Arte del Naviglio, Milan.
  • 1950, Hans Namuth photographs and films Pollock at work
  • In 1952, “A Retrospective Show of the Paintings of Jackson Pollock” organized by Clement Greenberg opens at Bennington College, Vermont and travels to Williams College, Williamstown, MA. Comprises of just eight works (1943-1951).
  • After struggling with alcoholism for his entire adult life, Pollock, on August 11, 1956 at 10:15pm, died in a single-car crash in his Oldsmobile convertible while driving under the influence of alcohol. 
  • After Pollock's demise at age 44, his widow, Lee Krasner, managed his estate and ensured that Pollock's reputation remained strong despite changing art-world trends. They are buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs with a large boulder marking his grave and a smaller one marking hers.
  • A major MoMA show opens in December 1956, intended to be a mid-career exhibition but instead opened as a memorial retrospective curated by Frank O’Hara. 
  • In 2000, Pollock was the subject of an Academy Award–winning film Pollock directed by and starring Ed Harris.
  • In November 2006, Pollock's No. 5, 1948 became the world's most expensive painting, when it was sold privately to an undisclosed buyer for the sum of $140,000,000. The previous owner was film and music-producer David Geffen. It is rumored that the current owner is a German businessman and art collector.


Mark Rothko

“I'm interested in expressing the big emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom." – Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko is considered one of the foremost figures Abstract Expressionism. He believed painting was an emotional and spiritual experience, for both himself and its viewers. By the late 1940s, he reached a format which critics named the “multiform.” It would become his signature style. Painting two or three soft-edged, luminescent rectangles, stacked weightlessly on top of one another, floating horizontally against a ground, he sought to transport the viewer to new realms of emotion and perception. Although his paintings may initially appear simplistic and repetitive, their composition, visual effects and emotional impact are complex. For Rothko, “a painting is not a picture of an experience, it is an experience.” One viewer’s personal experience of a Rothko painting cannot duplicate that of another.

  • Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia in 1903 to Jewish parents
  • Family relocated to Portland, Oregon, all arriving by 1913 but his father died the following year
  • Moved to New York in 1923 after dropping out of Yale University
  • Member of the Art Students League between 1926 to 1930, where he took art classes
  • Starting in 1932, series of joint summer vacations with Adolph Gottlieb and his wife, Esther, at Cape Ann, Massahuchusetts
  • 1933 First solo museum exhibition at Portland Art Museum, drawings and watercolours
  • In 1946, first major museum solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art “Oils and Watercolors by Mark Rothko”
  • The late 1940s marked the beginning of his color field paintings or “multiforms”, works for which he is known. In these works he used the technique of soak-staining, applying thinned paint onto the canvas to create abstract fields of color, horizontal cloud-like rectangles, which pervade the picture space with their lyrical presence. He begins to number paintings to avoid influencing viewer interpretation
  • From 1958 to 1969, he worked on three major commissions: monumental canvases for the Four Seasons Restaurant and Seagram Building, both in New York; murals for the Holyoke Center, Harvard University; and canvases for the chapel at the Institute of Religion and Human Development, Houston, known worldwide as “The Rothko Chapel.” The dark and somber works he created for the chapel are thought by some to foreshadow the artist’s suicide in 1970.
  • 1961 major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (forty-eight paintings), traveled to London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Basel and Rome


Willem de Kooning

“There’s no way of looking at a work of art by itself. It’s not self evident–it needs a history, it needs a lot of talking about; it’s part of a whole man’s life.” - Willem de Kooning

In late 1940s, in search of cheap coffee and companionship, a small group of artists led by close friends Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline set up a meeting place which they cheekily called “The Club.” De Kooning, never forgetting his working class roots in Rotterdam’s docklands, felt a profound solidarity with artists who were looking in from the outside. He enjoyed turning the tables on snobs, creating a club of the outcast. Ironically, this grubby loft in Greenwich Village almost immediately became the intellectual centre of the new painting. 

While the actual artmaking happened in artists’ studios, that ways that artists, critics and the public talked and thought about abstract art was very much shaped by discussions at The Club. At its height in the early 1950s, the Club boasted as many as 150 dues-paying members. Every significant New York-based artist, gallery owner, critic and curator passed through its doors, making it a significant force in the emergence and development of Abstract Expressionism.

  • 1904 Born Rotterdam, the Netherlands 
  • 1925 Graduates from Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts 
  • 1926 Emigrates illegally to the U.S., settles in New York
  • 1934 Begins his first series of abstract paintings which he continues through 1944. 
  • 1938 Meets artist Elaine Fried (later de Kooning). They marry in 1943.
  • 1940s Develops close friendship with artist Franz Kline. 
  • 1948 First solo exhibition in New York, including 10 black and white abstract paintings. 
  • 1949 With Kline, one of the founding members of the “the Club,” an artists’ group who met Wednesday nights to discuss art and theory.
  • 1950-1952 Creates his famous “Woman, I” painting.
  • 1950s Recognized as one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionist movement
  • 1962 Becomes U.S. citizen
  • 1963 Moves to East Hampton, Long Island.
  • 1968 First major solo-traveling show, organized by MoMA, travels to the Amsterdam, London, Chicago, Los Angeles.
  • 1985 Increasingly shows symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, dementia. Creates 63 paintings, his most productive year ever.
  • 1997 Dies at age 92.
  • 2006 His Woman III (1952-3) becomes the fourth most expensive painting ever sold, for $137.5 million US dollars.


Franz Kline

“I paint not the things I see but the feelings they arouse in me.” 
“I don’t decide in advance that am going to paint a definite experience, but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me.”  – Franz Kline

The Abstract Expressionists did share a common approach to artmaking: direct, often improvisational, and highly experiential. It was this method that allowed each artist to attain an autographic way of making work that could quickly be recognized as their own, a so-called “signature style.” They “wanted to believe that in the subjective process of painting itself they would find their own definition” explains critic Dore Ashton. Franz Kline was one such artist.

  • 1910 Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania 
  • 1919 Father commits suicide 
  • 1930s Cartoonist at his school paper, good enough to leave to coal town for Boston University.
  • 1936 Moves moved to London, UK to attend Heatherley’s Art School . 
  • 1938 Returns to US, settling in New York, eeking out a living with magazine illustration, portrait commissions and mural work.
  • 1943 Meets Willem de Kooning and with other artists, frequents the Cedar Tavern, along with Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston.
  • 1947 First uses a projector to enlarge a black and white ink drawing, discovering his signature style of amplified shapes and brushstrokes.
  • 1950 Achieves notoriety with first solo show of black and white abstract paintings and works on paper.
  • 1962 Dies from heart attack, age 52.
  • 1962 “Franz Kline Memorial Exhibition” at Washington Gallery of Modern Art.
  • 1963-1964 Curator and poet Frank O’Hara and the International Council at the Museum of Modern Art organize major Kline retrospective exhibition that travels to Amsterdam, Turin, Brussels, Basel, Vienna, London, Paris.


Joan Mitchell

“The painting is just a surface to be covered.” 
“Painting is a means of feeling.”  – Joan Mitchell

The 1950s brought fresh experiments in abstract imagery by not only Abstract Expressionism’s pioneers, but also a “second generation” of artists. This included the recognition of women artists, including Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner. While these artists adopted the now established tenets of spontaneity, improvisation, and a focus on process, they also replaced the urgent existential visions of their predecessors with more lyrical approaches. 

While many prominent Abstract Expressionists titled their paintings with only numbers or dates to focus viewers on the painting itself and to encourage individual interpretations, artists such as Joan Mitchell took a less oblique approach. Not afraid to reference the natural world in her painterly explorations of identity, she encouraged associations by giving her paintings titles such as Ladybug. Mitchell’s painting celebrates nature and landscape, while still a template of her unique individuality.

  • 1925 Born in Chicago
  • Mother was professional poet and father was amateur artist
  • Completed MFA at the Art Institute for Chicago
  • Moves to New York in 1949 and becomes immersed in downtown avant-garde art scene
  • 1952 First solo show 
  • 1955 Moves to Paris, still spending time in New York until settling permanently in France in 1959 
  • Begins relationship in France with Montreal-born painter Jean-Paul Riopelle that lasted 25 years.
  • Included in the important 1957 group exhibition Artists of the New York School: Second Generation at the Jewish Museum, New York. 
  • 1967 Purchases an estate in Vétheuil, a small village northwest of Paris, where she continues to paint until her death in 1992 of lung cancer.
  • Her first retrospective exhibition “The Paintings of Joan Mitchell: Thirty-six Years of Natural Expressionism” travels to museums across the US in 1988, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Albright Knox Art Gallery.


Robert Motherwell

“Abstract Expressionism was the first American art that was filled with anger as well as beauty.” 
“Art is an experience, not an object.” - Robert Motherwell

Motherwell, a prolific writer and engaging speaker, became a leading spokesperson for Abstract Expressionism. In talks and lectures across the US, he articulated to the public what it was he and his artist friends were doing in New York. He is best known for his Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, over 140 career-spanning works inspired by the 1930s Spanish Civil War. The tragedy of that conflict, in which an embattled, defiantly idealistic Spanish Republic was overwhelmed by the brutal fascist militia of Francisco Franco, gave Motherwell the impetus to dedicate a life's work to the cause of celebrating (and mourning) freedom. The fate of Spain, in losing democracy to dictatorship, was an emblem of a larger European struggle for freedom. Through this historic event, Motherwell also could paint meditations on the larger themes on death, loss and sexuality.

  • 1915 Born in Aberdeen, Washington. Spends childhood in California.
  • 1937 Graduates from Stanford University with a BA in philosophy. Also studies at Harvard and Columbia. Other Ab Ex artists will later tease him about his education.
  • His rigorous background in rhetoric would serve him and the abstract expressionists well, as he was able to tour the country giving speeches that articulated to the public what it was that he and his friends were doing in New York.
  • 1940 Moves New York City to study at Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University with Meyer Schapiro who convinced him to devote himself to painting
  • 1941 befriends European Surrealists living in New York, interested in theory of “automatism”
  • 1943 made his first two collages at invitation of Peggy Guggenheim for forthcoming collage show at her gallery, “Art of This Century.”
  • 1944 first solo show at “Art of This Century” 
  • 1948 first use of the image that developed into the motif for Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, career-spanning series of over 140 works
  • 1953 First summer in Provincetown, Cape Cod, MA; after 1956 returned most summers thereafter
  • 1958, married artist Helen Frankenthaler (his third wife), they divorce in 1971
  • 1958–59, included in MoMA's “The New American Painting”, which traveled to eight European cities
  • 1959 first retrospective at Bennington College, Vermont
  • 1965 major retrospective exhibition at MoMA, traveled to London, Brussels, Essen, and Turin 
  • 1971 moved to Greenwich, Connecticut
  • Died 1991


Barnett Newman

“I would prefer going to Churchill, Canada to walk the tundra than go to Paris.” – Barnett Newman

In his 1948 essay “The Sublime is Now,” Newman called for a new art stripped to its essentials that would deal with “absolute emotions.” He sought to create works the evoked the vastness of the natural world, and explored an individual’s place in it. “The self, terrible and constant, is for me the subject matter of painting,” he said. Newman’s preoccupation with the Sublime and the self exemplifies the great feeling of pride among artists in post-World War II New York. Finally American art had its own strong identity, a faith the redemptive power of art and American optimism. Despite his lofty goals, at his first solo exhibition in 1950, critics and colleagues alike were baffled by his rectangles of colour split by vertical stripes. His work was rejected as impersonal and something a housepainter, rather than an artist, would do. It would be the late 1950s before Newman was ready to paint again, and before the art world was ready to recognize him as a major force in Abstract Expressionism.

  • Born 1905, Lower East Side, Manhattan to Jewish parents who emigrated from Poland five years earlier. Spent lifetime in New York City.
  • Graduated from the City College of New York (CCNY) in Harlem in 1927, majored in philosophy, and concurrently attended drawing classes at the Art Students League, where he meets painter Adoph Gottlieb. Worked in family menswear manufacturing business and then as an art teacher to support himself as an artist. 
  • 1930s Through Gottlieb, is inducted into a group of artists who meet regularly to discuss art and sketch. This group includes Marcus Rothkowitz (Mark Rothko). Intermittently shares studio with Gottlieb.
  • 1940s Immersed in art criticism, writing for art catalogues and organizing exhibitions throughout New York. 
  • 1948 Paints Onement 1, a major breakthrough for him.
  • 1950 Sells no paintings at his first solo show, it is met with negative reception, which continues throughout most of the decade, causing him to stop making art for a period of time. 
  • 1958 included in MoMA travelling show “New American Painting.”
  • “Barnett Newman: First Retrospective Exhibition” at Bennington College, Vermont in 1958, with a catalogue essay by influential art critic Clement Greenberg. 
  • Summer 1959, travels to Emma Lake, Saskatchewan to lead a workshop for Canadian artists.
  • Largely overlooked, his first solo museum exhibition, “The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthan,” is a major one, opening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1966. It received mixed critical reception but wide recognition.
  • Dies of heart attack in 1970. Seven years later, his widow Annalee founded the Barnett Newman Foundation "to encourage the study and understanding of Barnett Newman's life and works."
  • In 1990, the National Gallery of Canada purchases his massive painting Voice of Fire (1967) for $1.8 million, igniting a country-wide controversy. Twenty years later, prices have soared. In 2008, a small ink-on-paper work by Newman sold for over $5 million (US).


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