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Action Painting

Action Painting Collage

Started: 1945

Ended: 1960

"The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist's existence."

Harold Rosenberg

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

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.
Action Painting Image


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.

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