Summary of Action Painting
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 & Accomplishments
- 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.
Overview of Action Painting
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.
Important Art and Artists of Action Painting
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 its 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 its surface. 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.
Franz Kline's stark black and white compositions of bold brushstrokes make him one of the quintessential gestural Abstract Expressionists. The simplicity of the colors and means, though, belies the often complex compositions that balance strong verticals and horizontals, broken curves, and imperfectly formed roundels. Importantly, Kline does not just paint black strokes onto a white ground but also paints the white next to and on top of the black, setting up a beguiling tension between figure and ground.
Many of the Abstract Expressionists, including Kline, insisted that their paintings were spontaneous acts, without preplanning. While one might assume that this spontaneity means the paintings were done quickly in one sitting, the actual process suggests otherwise. Kline, in fact, was constantly drawing, making small, black ink drawings on any paper he could find, even thin telephone book pages. Some of his paintings are reminiscent of one or sometimes a combination of these drawings.
In his essay on Action Painting, Rosenberg recounts a conversation with an unnamed artist who complains that one of his colleagues - also unnamed - is old fashioned because he works from sketches, but Rosenberg counters this artist's protestation by saying, "There is no reason why an act cannot be prolonged from a piece of paper to a canvas. Or repeated on another scale and with more control. A sketch can have the function of a skirmish." Here, Rosenberg subverts the preconception that planning, or sketching, an idea before one goes to the canvas is anathema by arguing that there is no rule or formula about how long an action takes or that a painting is simply one action. Rosenberg's conception of Action Painting complicates notions of spontaneity, and Kline's Chief, when carefully studied, embodies that complexity.
Willem de Kooning shocked the art world when he showed a Women series at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953. Many critics decried his "return" to the figure without understanding that de Kooning had always painted abstractly and representationally more or less at the same time. But even by this early date, Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting were yoked to abstraction, and the revelation of the figure in de Kooning's latest work seemed like an affront to avant-garde art.
De Kooning dodged accusations of misogyny by talking about his Women as modern equivalents of ancient idols and trying to point out the humor in his representations. The controversies of subject matter aside, Rosenberg certainly would have counted de Kooning among the Action Painters, as Action Painting had little to do with subject matter and most to do with the artist's attitude toward painting. In describing abstract painting, Rosenberg wrote, "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 would get in the way of the act of painting." De Kooning was a rare artist who was able to meld the modernist insistence on materiality and flatness with a recognizable subject matter in his act of painting.
In an undated note, de Kooning wrote, "With intimate proportions I mean the familiarity you have when you look at somebody's big toe when close to it, or a crease in a hand or a nose - or lips or a ty [thigh]. The drawing those parts make are interchangeable one for the other and become so many spots of paint or brushstrokes." Body parts for de Kooning are less about their representational function and become instead abstract, malleable forms and bits of paint to be put together like any geometric shapes or colors. Furthermore, de Kooning's willingness to buck the strictures that avant-garde art has to be abstract made him more original than most in Rosenberg's estimation. As he told the art critic David Sylvester, "It's really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear that I'll have to follow my desires."
Useful Resources on Action Painting
- Jackson Pollock: New ApproachesOur PickBy Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel
- de Kooning: An American MasterBy Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
- The Tradition of the NewBy Harold Rosenberg
- The Anxious ObjectBy Harold Rosenberg
- The De-Definition of Art: Action Art to Pop to EarthworksBy Harold Rosenberg
- Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976By Norman L. Kleeblatt
- The American Action PaintersBy Harold Rosenberg / Art News / December 1952
- Action, Revolution and PaintingBy Fred Orton / Oxford Art Journal / 1 December 1991
- The Tragic Image: Action Painting RefiguredRobert Slifkin / Oxford Art Journal / June 2011
- Harold Rosenberg on the Character of ActionBy Christa Noel Robbins / Oxford Art Journal / June 2012
- 'Never imitate others': The story of GutaiBy Meredith Etherington-Smith / Christie's / 15 May 2015
- Yves Klein - AnthropometriesA video that explores and describes Yves Klein's early performance art, including film footage from one of his 'Anthropometries'
- Jackson Pollock Action PaintingOur PickFilm footage by Hans Namuth of Jackson Pollock making a drip painting
- The Painting Technique of Franz KlineAn instructive demonstration of how Franz Kline painted his black and white canvases