Abstract Expressionism developed in the context of diverse, overlapping sources and inspirations. Many of the young artists had made their start in the 1930s. The Great Depression yielded two popular art movements, Regionalism and Social Realism, neither of which satisfied this group of artists' desire to find a content rich with meaning and redolent of social responsibility, yet free of provincialism and explicit politics. The Great Depression also spurred the development of government relief programs, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a jobs program for unemployed Americans in which many of the group participated, and which allowed so many artists to establish a career path.
But it was the exposure to and assimilation of European modernism that set the stage for the most advanced American art. There were several venues in New York for seeing avant-garde art from Europe. The Museum of Modern Art had opened in 1929, and there artists saw a rapidly growing collection acquired by director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. They were also exposed to groundbreaking temporary exhibitions of new work, including Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936–37), and retrospectives of , Léger, and , among others. Another forum for viewing the most advanced art was Albert Gallatin's Museum of Living Art, which was housed at New York University from 1927 to 1943. There the Abstract Expressionists saw the work of Mondrian, Gabo, El Lissitzky, and others. The forerunner of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—the Museum of Non-Objective Painting—opened in 1939. Even prior to that date, its collection of Kandinskys had been publicly exhibited several times. The lessons of European modernism were also disseminated through teaching. The German expatriate Hans Hofmann (1880–1966) became the most influential teacher of modern art in the United States, and his impact reached both artists and critics.
The crisis of war and its aftermath are key to understanding the concerns of the Abstract Expressionists. These young artists, troubled by man's dark side and anxiously aware of human irrationality and vulnerability, wanted to express their concerns in a new art of meaning and substance. Direct contact with European artists increased as a result of World War II, which caused so many—including Dalí, Ernst, Masson, Breton, Mondrian, and Léger—to seek refuge in the U.S. The opened up new possibilities with their