Abstract Expressionism developed in America in 1940s and 1950s. The name evokes their aim which was to make abstract art that was also expressive or emotional in its effect. They were inspired by the Surrealist idea that art should come from the unconscious mind. The Abstract Expressionists were mostly based in New York City, and also became known as the New York School.

Within Abstract Expressionism there are two broad groupings. The action painters led by Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning, and the colour-field painters, notably Mark Rothko, and Bret Newman. The action painters worked in a spontaneous improvisatory manner often using large brushes to make sweeping gestural marks. Pollock famously placed his canvas on the ground and danced around it pouring paint direct from the can or trailing it from the brush or a stick. In this way they directly placed their inner impulses on the canvas. The colour field painters were deeply interested in religion and myth. They created simple compositions with large areas of a single colour intended to produce a contemplative or meditational response in the viewer.

The movement was enormously successful both critically and commercially. The result was such that New York came to replace Paris as the centre for contemporary art and the repercussions of this extraordinarily influential movement can still be felt years after its heyday.