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The Vanguard: Key Abstract Expressionist Artists

on December 28, 2022

Key Artists of the Abstract Expressionist Revolution

1. Clyfford Still

For years Clyfford Still was practically unknown compared to his contemporaries, despite being widely considered the most talented member of the bunch. He refused to show his works in poor quality exhibitions causing his reputation to falter, even as he thrived artistically. When he died in 1980, he retained more than 95% of his output. In 2011, in accordance with the demands of his estate, the Clyfford Still Museum (Denver, CO) was built to hold more than 3,000 of his works, most never before exhibited.

2. Jackson Pollock

Though not the first to employ them, Jackson Pollock is acknowledged as the artist who most successfully incorporated painting techniques like dripping, pouring, and splattering. Pollock’s process involved rarely if ever making direct contact with the canvas. Instead, he held his painting implements above the surfaces and used his body to create active, gestural motions that resulted in paint being projected onto the surface in a loosely controlled, by uninhibited way. (Image: Pollock's studio floor  at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, New York. Creative Commons)

3. Janet Sobel

Largely ignored during her lifetime, Janet Sobel was an influence on both Jackson Pollock and the art critic Clement Greenberg. Both men saw her paintings when Peggy Guggenheim exhibited them in 1944 at her Art of This Century Gallery in New York. Greenberg called her work the first all-over paintings he had ever seen. Sobel pioneered the iconic drip technique that Pollock made famous.


4. Willem de Kooning

Abstract expressionism, Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning was a big influencer, not only because of his art but because he was socially and intellectually engaged with so many other artists. He had a ravenous appetite for conversation and education. He and Franz Kline ran a weekly art club where creatives got together, drank coffee, and argued about art. De Kooning once said, “The club came along at just the right time. It was so important, getting together, arguing, thinking.” Every important artist of the time at one point showed up at the club. (Image: Willem de Kooning in his studio, ca. 1961)


5. Robert Motherwell

The youngest, and possibly most educated first-generation Abstract Expressionist, Robert Motherwell often acted as the intellectual voice of the group. He was an expert writer and speaker and had a deep knowledge of art history. His distinctive aesthetic style set his work in a category of its own.


6. Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky was one of the most passionate and influential voices of the movement. His tireless efforts to educate the public about abstraction made him a leading advocate for aesthetic experimentation. By the time he died in 1948 he was one of the most energetic, vibrant, and idiosyncratic voices in American painting. (Image: Arshile Gorkey, ca. 1935, by Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Wikipedia Commons)


7. Lee Krasner

Over the course of her long career, Lee Krasner was consistently a voice for the avant-garde, and her approach to painting helped define Abstract Expressionism. Her personal style evolved multiple times, as she always prized individuality over movements or trends. A student of renowned artist/teacher Hans Hoffman, Krasner was also a regular at the art club run by Willem de Kooning, and for a time was in a turbulent marriage to Jackson Pollock.


8. Norman Lewis

Galleries and museums mostly ignored the African American painter Norman Lewis during his lifetime. His contribution to first-generation Abstract Expressionism is indisputable nonetheless. His recent retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and his inclusion in a major Abstract Expressionist exhibition in Britain has begun to correct his unfortunate snub by art history.


9. Franz Kline

The visual language created by Franz Kline is unlike that of any of his contemporaries. His techniques and the spirit with which he painted embody the philosophy of Abstract Expressionism. Using large brushes and common house paint, Kline’s style is characterized by vibrant, physical motions, creating huge, energetic compositions. His lines and forms, he said, were “unrelated to any entity but that of their own existence.


10. Bradley Walker Tomlin

Another commonly overlooked first-generation Abstract Expressionist, Bradley Walker Tomlin mixed expressive action painting with a methodical quest for perfection. His marginalization is beginning to be corrected, thanks to a retrospective of his work at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New York.


Pete Stein
Founder, Galerie Stein

Galerie Stein will be presenting several contemporary Abstract Expressionist artists both virtually at and in our gallery in Montreal in 2024.
Contact: Pete Stein at