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In 1952, the influential American art critic Harold Rosenberg noticed a new trend in painting. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were no longer trying to paint their surroundings or depict an object. They were applying sweeping brushstrokes and dripping paint onto their canvas in a direct, instinctual, and highly dynamic way.

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For Rosenberg, the canvas was becoming "an arena in which to act". The artwork was no longer "a picture but an event". The critic coined the term "action painting" to describe this new process in abstract expressionism.

So, how do we define action painting? And what is the relationship between abstract expressionism and action painting? Let’s take a look at the wider context in which action painting emerged.

Abstract Expressionism in context

Abstract expressionism was a broad movement in American painting in the mid twentieth century. As european artists fled nazi persecution during the second world war, an influx of continental influence reached the United States in the early 1940s. Artists brought the ideas of modernist artists such as Matisse and Picasso and experimented with the "automatic" techniques developed by the Surrealists.

Abstract expressionism emerged at a time of artistic censorship in the United States. The post-war McCarthy era limited creative expression, especially artworks with political sympathies. And abstraction provided the perfect disguise. 

During the early forties, abstract expressionist artists and their works went on display in galleries in New York. Painters like Mark Rothko engaged in the anti-figurative aesthetic of colour field paintings and Barnett Newman painted large areas of flat, solid color spread across the picture plane.

So, where does action painting sit in this history? Unlike the color field abstract expressionists, action painting did not balance colour and form in the same way. Action painting involved greater spontaneity and an element of performance. For Rosenberg, action painting expressed an existential and revolutionary tendency in art. Indeed, the very process itself was revolutionary.

 

Jackson Pollock at work in his Long Island studio, 1949. Martha Holmes/Life Pictures/Shutterstock.

 

Action Painting Defined

Jackson Pollock's painting process is the very definition of action painting. His dripping technique involved moving around, stepping over and gesturing across the canvas laid flat on the floor. Then pouring, dripping, splashing and whipping complex webs of pigment in a fast, dynamic and aggressive manner across the surface.

"On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting."

We can define action painting as an approach to painting. As Rosenberg saw it, the resulting painting was the aesthetic manifestation of an art event. The physical act of making the painting was equally as important as the finished work itself.

Other action painters employed similarly bold, gestural techniques. The Dutch artist Willem De Kooning was known for his highly vigorous paint application, forceful brushstrokes and richly coloured textures. De Kooning often planned his works, unlike Pollock, whose compositions emerged through painting itself. 

Other action painters of the 1940s included Franz Kline, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and Jack Tworkov. Kline used intense, sweeping black brushstrokes to produce bold and monumental paintings and forms.

By the late 1950s, the trends in abstract expressionism shifted to the colour-field and abstract imagist painters like Rothko and Newman. Their followers in the 1960s rebelled against what they considered the irrationality of the action painters. 

Despite this, action painting revolutionized modern art and inspired painters for decades to come. So what is an example of an action painting? Let's look at some influential works from the 1940s to the present.

 

7 examples of action paintings

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950

In this excellent example of a Jackson Pollock action painting, the artist employed a range of ochre paints to depict nature's flux in autumn. To create this work, Pollock deployed his signature technique: laying the canvas on the floor, standing over it, splashing his paint across the surface until he reached a harmony of form and colour. 

 

Caption: Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (1950), Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

 

Willem de Kooning, Woman III, 1951-53

Willem de Kooning began action painting after the second world war. His series of portraits of women are perhaps his best known and sit at odds with the non-figurative focus on abstract expressionism more generally. Many of his peers saw Woman, I as a regression back to an outmoded tradition of representing women as grotesque aberrations. The aggressive and seemingly violent application of paint to the canvas led critics to accuse the artist of misogyny.

 

Willem de Kooning, Woman III, (1951-53) Private collection of Steven A. Cohen

 

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock's Comb, 1944

Gorky was an Armenian-American painter who influenced Abstract Expressionism, action painting and many other painters of the 20th century. In the 1960s, Rosenberg described how: "Gorky differs from the Action Painters in that for him the gesture is never a sufficient starting point." The artist's loose organic forms are closely related to the European abstract artists of the pre-war period.

 

Arshile Gorky The Liver is the Cock's Comb, 1944, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, US

 

Franz Kline, Meryon, 1960–1

Franz Kline was an American painter associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. His large-scale action paintings like Meryon employed vigorous and broad directional brushstrokes in black and white. Unlike Pollock, Kline often made sketches before he painted.

 

Franz Kline, Meryon, 1960–1, © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

 

Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1964

Lee Krasner was a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism known for her large-scale abstract paintings. After attending the Women's Art School, Krasner met Jackson Pollock in the early 1940s, which marked the start of a fractious relationship that shrouded her career. Krasner imagined the dense compositions of colour and shape sometimes with the scraps of Pollock’s work, creating collage artworks that demonstrated her admiration for Henri Matisse.

 

Lee Krasner, Untitled. 1964.

 

Gerhard Richter, Frost, 1989

The contemporary German painter is known for his Abstraktes Bild paintings. In his canvases of the late 1980s, the artist examined the history of abstract expressionist painting. His technique includes painting the canvas and scraping off layers of paint with a squeegee. In Frost, the artist applied multiple layers of paint before the pigment and dragged a squeegee across the surface to create richness across the canvas.

 

Gerhard Richter, Frost I, 1989

 

Action Bronson, White Bronco, 2018

The American rapper turned painter caught the art world's attention when he turned to painting in 2018. The visceral, colourful and expressive paintings, including the cover artwork White Bronco, show strong influences of action painting and abstract expressionism. Action Bronson applied broad strokes of red-and-white and blue to carve out figures that recall the works of action painter Willem de Kooning.

 

Action Bronson, White Bronco, 2018.

 

Cover image: Caption: Jackson Pollock, Convergence, 1952, olio su tela, 237,5 x 393,7 cm, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

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