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Action Painting

Started: 1945

Ended: 1960

Action Painting Timeline

Quotes

"Every so often a painter has to destroy painting. Cézanne did it. Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of the picture all to hell."
Willem de Kooning
"The painter no longer approached the easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter."
Harold Rosenberg
"A sketch is the preliminary form of an image the mind is trying to grasp. To work from sketches arouses the suspicion that the artist still regards the canvas as a place where the mind records its contents - rather than itself the 'mind' through which the painter thinks by changing a surface with paint."
Harold Rosenberg
"The apples weren't brushed off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space and color. They had to go so that nothing could get in the way of the act of painting."
Harold Rosenberg
"What you do when you paint, you take a brush full of paint, get paint on the picture, and you have fate."
Willem de Kooning
"...the 1952 essay, 'The American Action Painters' [was] one of the first published attempts to endow Abstract Expressionism with meaning."
Fred Orton

KEY ARTISTS

Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
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Franz KlineFranz Kline
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Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning
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Mark RothkoMark Rothko
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Joan MitchellJoan Mitchell
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Jean FautrierJean Fautrier
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"The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist's existence."

Harold Rosenberg

Synopsis

The small, personal act of painting was not going to spark revolutionary change, but in the very act of carving out a space to engage in a creative dialogue with materials - paint and canvas - the artist registered an act of rebellion within the conformist culture of the Cold War. Coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 as an alternative to Abstract Expressionism, Action Painting emphasized the revolutionary nature of the artist's decision to paint. Rosenberg elaborated on ideas of painting as an action he had heard in artists' studios and wove them with Marxist theory, Existential philosophy, and his thoughts on drama to articulate his description of the new American painting. What resulted on the canvas was, in Rosenberg's words, "not a picture but an event." Action Painters were not interested in depicting illusionistic scenes but rendering the energy and movement of life in a visible way on the canvas.

While typically associated with gestural painting, Action Painting was meant to encompass a wide array of artists, from Jackson Pollock to Barnett Newman, although the artists themselves shied away from adopting the moniker. While Rosenberg's friendly proximity with the artists gave him access to how the artists were talking about their painting, Rosenberg's theory of Action Painting was largely overshadowed by Clement Greenberg's more formalist readings of Abstract Expressionist painting. His description spawned many interpretations and misreadings, some of which came to fruition in later Performance Art, but many scholars have worked in recent years to rehabilitate Rosenberg's contributions to the understanding of Abstract Expressionism.

Key Ideas

One of the main tenets of Abstract Expressionism was the evasion of a collective style. Each artist painted in his or her own way, developing individual, signature styles. Recognizing this diversity, Rosenberg's emphasis on the process of painting instead of style allowed him to speak of the artists collectively in a way that highlighted their motivations instead of the way their paintings looked.
Action Painting is predicated on the idea that the creative process involves a dialogue between the artist and the canvas. Just as the artist affects the canvas by making a mark on it, that mark in turn affects the artist and determines the trajectory of the next mark. As Rosenberg explained, "Each stroke had to be a decision and was answered by a new question." While spontaneity is key to Action Painting, it is always within the parameters of this dialogue.
Rosenberg linked Action Painting with the artist's biography, but he was careful to point out that he did not mean that we should scrutinize the painting to find references to the artist's private life or to find clues about the artist's psychological state. Instead, Rosenberg meant something more existential in the sense that in painting the artist was not necessarily expressing the self but creating the self.

Most Important Art

Action Painting Famous Art

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950)

Artist: Jackson Pollock
Many scholars speculate that Jackson Pollock was Rosenberg's primary model for his description of Action Painting, although equally good arguments have been made for other artists as well. Even if he was not the chief artist Rosenberg had in mind, Pollock's paintings have become synonymous with Action Painting. Autumn Rhythm is a quintessential drip painting, with it all over composition of a dizzying web of black, brown, and white enamel paint.

To execute this work, Pollock laid out a large unstretched canvas on the floor of his studio, and then, walking around the four edges of the canvas, he systematically poured, dribbled, and flung paint across the surface of the canvas. In one of his rare written statements, Pollock explained, "When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well."

Pollock's particularly performative way of painting is of course more active than most painters', but his ability to respond to new lines and forms as they emerge in the painting process speaks to his spontaneity and his engagement in a dialogue with his materials. While many scholars speak of Pollock's work as a metaphor for the unconscious - its inchoate skeins of paint suggesting the inchoate nature of our pre-conscious minds - in reality, Pollock's control and decision-making processes in the act of painting create a tension with that reading. It is, though, this very back and forth between painter and painting that was at the heart of Rosenberg's idea of Action Painting.
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Action Painting Artworks in Focus:

Beginnings

Forbears

A photograph of the critic Harold Rosenberg
A photograph of the critic Harold Rosenberg

The art historian Nicholas Chare has written that "the dynamics of action, as presented by Rosenberg, have visual precursors in art of the past." One might go back to Michelangelo's drawings or even Rembrandt's paintings, but more immediately, one can point to Manet and the Impressionists, who emphasized the physical process of painting by not hiding the brushstrokes that made up the surfaces of their paintings, and later, the Surrealists, who promoted automatic drawing that was not mediated by a conscious decision-making process.

Comparatively, a theory of sculpture emerged in the early 20th century that laid special emphasis on "direct carving." From the 1910s onwards, the likes of Eric Gill and subsequently Henry Moore promoted the idea that carving and its visible effects were important to the finished work itself. These ideas were translated into compelling prose by the British artist and writer Adrian Stokes, whose book The Stones of Rimini was published in 1934.

Rosenberg, then, in emphasizing action elevated a certain quality of execution that was already present in the Western tradition of art. While Rosenberg did acknowledge that American abstract art may resemble European forebears, the American's motive for abstraction, their emphasis on process, was decidedly different and carried an existential, even moral, character.

Action Painting's Post-War Context

Rosenberg embraced the Marxist ideas that circulated among the Leftist intelligentsia and bohemia during the 1930s, and his friendships with important thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, her husband Heinrich Blücher, Paul Goodman, and Kenneth Burke likely informed his own thinking about individuality, agency, and action. It was during this time that he started meeting and hanging out with the artists who he would later write about. He was familiar with the earlier Dadaists who used their art to vehemently critique the culture and society that led to the First World War, and he heard artists like Herbert Ferber and Willem de Kooning talking about the canvas as an arena and painting as a struggle. In the face of a devastating war, an increasingly bureaucratized society, and an encroaching mass culture that promoted conformity over individual creativity, Rosenberg set out to probe the ways artists responded to this new era in their art. Originally written to introduce a European audience to the new post-war American painting, Rosenberg ended up publishing his essay "The American Action Painters" in the December 1952 issue of the prominent magazine Art News. He didn't mention any artists by name, but it was clear that he was speaking of the small group of vanguard painters in New York City.

Particularly after World War II, there was a growing sense that something new and wholly unrelated to the preceding "values" of art was required. While "The American Action Painters" is most famous for providing a description of Action Painting, one of its larger points is that in the wake of the commodification of Modern Art (he capitalizes this to distinguish it from art made in the modern era) and its uses and abuses by cultural elites, this new painting has not found a larger audience. In fact, with this newly debased, popular culture, in which art lacked substance and did not have an essential quality, Modern Art, in Rosenberg's estimation, could be attached as a superficial label to anything that struck one as being novel or unfamiliar. He was concerned that Action Painting had not been acknowledged for what it was - a profoundly physical assertion of human life in an increasingly dehumanized society.

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Action Painting Overview Continues

Rosenberg and the painters he described were not only anxious to escape and surpass the precedents of European artistic achievements, they were also eager to transform the basis on which art itself was understood. Rosenberg distinguished between the merely visual nature of all preceding art, on one hand, and the action-led nature of Action Painting, on the other. At the centre of Action Painting was a desire for human life, the movement and gesture of the artist, to emerge as the primary point of interest in an artwork.

In one respect, Action Painting was a reaction to the dehumanising effects of mechanised warfare and the affecting consequences of participation in a bloody war. For Rosenberg, moreover, this assertion of human life also grew from the frustrations of economic stagnation. As the art historian Fred Orton described, since the Great Depression in the 1930s a "sense of impasse" developed among certain American intellectuals, who came to feel an acute need for radical change. Rosenberg was one of them, and for him, Action Painting was partly a way of expressing revolutionary political intent.

Contentious critics

Within the annals of Abstract Expressionism, Rosenberg's rival was Clement Greenberg, another prominent art critic who was one of the Abstract Expressionists' most important advocates. Greenberg's approach to the new American painting was formal; that is, he concentrated his criticism on painting's specificity. Greenberg contended that each art needed to focus on what made it unique; in painting's case, its flatness. Instead of representing, or illustrating, a three-dimensional world, painting should explore its own essence, its own two dimensionality. Greenberg imagined art's progress to be away from representation, as such, and towards greater abstraction.

While both championed abstract art, Rosenberg's formulation of Action Painting as an existential act might be regarded as a riposte to the formalism espoused by Greenberg. Rosenberg was less concerned than Greenberg with stylistic aesthetics or the progress of modern art, and his position among the artists put him closer in touch with how the artists spoke about their work. While Greenberg knew the artists personally and visited their studios, Rosenberg hung out with the artists in social settings such as The Club and the Cedar Tavern and was more ensconced within the group. This vantage point gave him a unique insight into the artists' motivations and helped him to formulate his idea of Action Painting, and in fact, much of what Rosenberg writes in the essay is an attempt to give voice to the artists themselves. In his telling, it was the act of making that counted, not the formal qualities of flatness, arrangement, line, and color.

Concepts and Trends

Gesture Painting

Action Painting has become synonymous with the gestural painting of artists as diverse as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline. Most typically, the action of Action Painting is associated with how the artist puts paint on canvas. The Abstract Expressionists were not using tiny brushes and delicately putting paint on the canvas. These gestural painters often used large brushes to make sweeping strokes across the canvas, and it was the action of that gesture, of moving not just one's hand but oftentimes one's entire arm, that came to define Action Painting in the popular imagination. The paint stroke is read as the index of the artist's movement.

The physical action of the painter is most famously illustrated in Hans Namuth's 1951 film and photographs of Pollock painting. We see Pollock moving around the edges of his canvas - sometimes even stepping into it - dipping a tool into the can of paint, and directing the paint onto the canvas by reaching his arm over the space and flicking the paint off of the brush. Pollock's skeins of dripped lines, flicked and splattered marks, and pools of paint invite a viewer to think about the actions that Pollock used to make them. The way the drip paintings were made is inseparable from the way they look.

Among many others, the output of Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Norman Bluhm, Franz Kline, and Hans Hofmann demonstrated highly individual styles all of which in some way drew attention to the act of execution - the sweep of a loaded brush for de Kooning, a wild splash of paint for Bluhm, a slash of black paint for Kline. In all these painters' work, the manner of execution became the content of the work.

Color Field Painting

The equation of gesture painting and Action Painting is largely a product of subsequent interpretations of Rosenberg's idea, and scholars and critics often overlook the fact that Rosenberg thought that artists such as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and even Ad Reinhardt fell within the realm of Action Painting. While Clyfford Still would later repudiate Rosenberg's ideas of action, he himself often spoke of the act of painting. In 1952, the same year as Rosenberg's essay was published, Still wrote, "We are now committed to an unqualified act, not illustrating outworn myths or contemporary alibis. One must accept total responsibility for what he executes. And the measure of his greatness will be in the depth of his insight and his courage in realizing his own vision." Rosenberg's explanation of the American artists' motivations would echo Still's grand pronouncement.

Color Field Painting Movement Page

The gesture that Rosenberg wrote about in his essay "The American Action Painters" is the initial gesture of putting paint on the canvas. As he explained, "The big moment came when it was decided to paint...just TO PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation...." For Rosenberg it was not essential that the paint on the canvas had to look gestural. In an extreme reading, almost any painting could be an Action Painting, and one of the most common criticisms of Rosenberg's idea is that one cannot judge an Action Painting based on how it looks but instead must infer the authenticity of the artist's intentions. Rosenberg, though, would not go so far as to claim Rembrandt or Monet as Action Painters, as he was specifically talking about a group of like-minded artists working contemporaneously in New York City.

Tachisme and the Second School of Paris

In their own response to the devastations wrought by World War II, European artists developed their own version of Abstract Expressionism, or Action Painting. Tachisme was a European movement in painting closely related to Art Informel and Art Brut and partially developed by the critic Michel Tapié. Like the New York School, the Second School of Paris included a variety of artistic interests. One prominent artist associated with the term, Jean Fautrier, used his canvases to suggest the texture of bodily suffering. Employing automatist methods, his paintings were often unplanned and look swiftly painted, concealing the involved technique he used. Another painter associated with Tachisme, Nicolas de Staël, sought to reconcile painterly abstraction with a suggestive kind of representation. His paintings from 1950 onwards demonstrate an increasing interest in the imminence of painting - the application of a loaded brush to canvas - while continuing to suggest the salient lines of a landscape, with foregrounds and horizons.

Gutai

In 1954, a short time after Rosenberg developed Action Painting in America, a group of Japanese artists clustered around Jirō Yoshihara in the small city of Ashiya, near Osaka. They were interested in creating artworks that made visible the act of making. Yoshihara had been an early pioneer of abstraction in Japan. Seeking to develop a more coherent school of painting, he paid for and led the foundation of the Gutai Bijutsu Kyōkai, the Concrete Art Association. Unlike the American Action Painters, Gutai was highly organized, publishing its own eponymous journal and holding regular group exhibitions. The leading contributors to the group were Kazuō Shiraga and Atsuko Tanaka.

As the 1950s progressed, proponents of this dynamic mode of painting become increasingly aware of connections between the American, Japanese, and European painters of the time. In 1958, a large exhibition of work from all three continents was held in Tokyo at the Takashimaya department store. The International Art of a New Era, partly curated by Michel Tapié, the leading critic of Art Informel in France, was a major milestone towards the international recognition of the Action Painting mode.

Gutai Movement Page

Later Developments

After the initial generation of Action Painters, painters like Francis Bacon and Cy Twombly developed their own distinctive gestural styles. In his early paintings, Twombly in particular took the gesture of the Action Painter, sometimes thought of in terms of unique handwriting, and emptied it of its existential rhetoric and emotion. Countering the Abstract Expressionists' insistence on individuality, Twombly downplayed the role of the artist as original creator, highlighting the mechanical nature of writing in his chalkboard paintings and the anonymity of graffiti.

Allan Kaprow, <i>Chicken</i> (1962), one of his many Happenings
Allan Kaprow, Chicken (1962), one of his many Happenings

More generally, however, Action Painting was superseded by those artists who took the painters' rejection of pictorialism one step further. Where Action Painting denied the importance of "the aesthetic," some artists claimed that there did not even need to be a remnant, or document, of the artistic act, emphasizing the centrality of the creative act in and of itself. In effect, Performance Art and its relatives took the "painting" out of Action Painting. Allan Kaprow's "happenings," sought to reject the materials of painting altogether. Kaprow wanted an art that was made from the stuff of one's immediate surroundings - not the abstruse confections of paint practised by Action Painting.

Yves Klein's early performances were highly significant in marking the deterioration of Action Painting's philosophy. His Anthropometries, staged in 1960 and using women as "living paintbrushes'" sought to remove the artist from any involvement with the application of paint but continued to develop Rosenberg's notion by explicitly revealing the process of making. Where Rosenberg asked audiences to think about a painting in terms of what the artist did in the privacy of the studio, Klein boldly stepped into the public gaze and made a very public demonstration of what went into the making of his work. Despite Rosenberg's subsequent criticism of performance-based art, which he took to be a misreading of Action Painting, Klein's innovations inspired a generation of artists and further directions in art marking.


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Content compiled and written by Luke Farey

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Action Painting

Videos

Books

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Jackson Pollock: New Approaches Recomended resource

By Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel

de Kooning: An American Master

By Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

written by artist

The Tradition of the New

By Harold Rosenberg

The Anxious Object

By Harold Rosenberg

More Interesting Books about Action Painting
The American Action Painters

By Harold Rosenberg
Art News
December 1952

Action, Revolution and Painting

By Fred Orton
Oxford Art Journal
1 December 1991

The Tragic Image: Action Painting Refigured

Robert Slifkin
Oxford Art Journal
June 2011

Harold Rosenberg on the Character of Action

By Christa Noel Robbins
Oxford Art Journal
June 2012

More Interesting Articles about Action Painting
Yves Klein - Anthropometries

A video that explores and describes Yves Klein's early performance art, including film footage from one of his 'Anthropometries'

Jackson Pollock Action Painting Recomended resource

Film footage by Hans Namuth of Jackson Pollock making a drip painting

The Painting Technique of Franz Kline

An instructive demonstration of how Franz Kline painted his black and white canvases

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