Action Painting - History and Concepts
Beginnings 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.
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.
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.
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.
Action Painting: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
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.
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.
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.
Later Developments - After Action Painting
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.
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.