From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Action painting, sometimes called "gestural abstraction", is a style of painting in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied. The resulting work often emphasizes the physical act of painting itself as an essential aspect of the finished work or concern of its artist.
The style was widespread from the 1940s until the early 1960s, and is closely associated with abstract expressionism (some critics have used the terms "action painting" and "abstract expressionism" interchangeably). A comparison is often drawn between the American action painting and the French tachisme.
The term was coined by the American critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 and signaled a major shift in the aesthetic perspective of New York School painters and critics. According to Rosenberg the canvas was "an arena in which to act". While abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning had long been outspoken in their view of a painting as an arena within which to come to terms with the act of creation, earlier critics sympathetic to their cause, like Clement Greenberg, focused on their works' "objectness." To Greenberg, it was the physicality of the paintings' clotted and oil-caked surfaces that was the key to understanding them as documents of the artists' existential struggle.
Rosenberg's critique shifted the emphasis from the object to the struggle itself, with the finished painting being only the physical manifestation, a kind of residue, of the actual work of art, which was in the act or process of the painting's creation.
Over the next two decades, Rosenberg's redefinition of art as an act rather than an object, as a process rather than a product, was influential, and laid the foundation for a number of major art movements, from Happenings and Fluxus to Conceptual and Earth Art.
In an Aesthetic Realism Foundation study of Pollock's painting, Number One 1948, Lore Mariano shows how the aesthetic effect of this quintessential example of action painting arises from the way it is at once abandoned and accurate — that is, puts together the very opposites that "struggle" or are in conflict not only in the artist but in every individual.
It is essential for the understanding of this movement to place it in historical context. A product of the post-war artistic insurgence, it developed in an era where quantum mechanics and psychoanalysis were beginning to flourish and change the entire human civilization’s understating of the world and self-consciousness.
The preceding art of Kandinsky and Mondrian, had attempted to detract itself from the portrayal of objects and instead tried to tingle and tantalize the emotions of the viewer. "Action Art" took this a step further, using Freud’s ideas of the subconscious as its underling foundations. The paintings of the Action Artists were not meant to portray any objects whatsoever and likewise were not meant to stimulate emotion. Instead they were meant to touch the observers deep in the subconscious. This was done by the Artist painting "unconsciously".
The unconscious act
This spontaneous activity was the "action" of the painter. The painter would let the paint drip onto canvases, often simply dancing around, or even standing on the canvases, and simply letting the paint fall where the subconscious mind wills, thus letting the unconscious part of the psyche express itself.
For example, in Jackson Pollock’s paintings one can often find cigarette stubs. Supposedly, when he created his paintings he would simply allow himself to slip into a trance in which no conscious act was to manifest itself; so if he had the instinctive impulse to throw his cigarette to the floor, he would allow himself do so letting the canvas take the place of the sidewalk or other ground in which a cigarette might normally be thrown..
The effect the artist would like to portray to the viewer is observing someone smothering out their finished cigarette. Most of the time, the person will simply throw it to the ground without thinking of what is being done. The Action Painters tried to show this a type of un-thought or spontaneous action.
All this, however, is difficult to explain or interpret because it is a supposed unconscious manifestation.
Notable action painters
- Norman Bluhm
- Sam Francis
- Michael Goldberg (Stuart)
- Franz Kline
- Willem de Kooning
- Albert Kotin
- José Guerrero
- Lee Krasner
- Alfred Leslie
- Conrad Marca-Relli
- Modesto Ciruelos
- Joan Mitchell
- Jackson Pollock
- Milton Resnick
- Jack Tworkov
- Ismail Gulgee