Action Painting
Definition, Characteristics, History of Gestural Abstraction.

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For a guide, see: Definition of Art.


Lavender Mist (Number 1) (1950)
National Gallery, Washington DC.
By Jackson Pollock.

Action Painting

What is Action Painting?- Characteristics

It is a highly-charged, impulsive style of abstract gestural painting during which paint is energetically splashed, spilt or dribbled onto a canvas, usually placed face-up on the floor. Although this type of automatic painting has been used by different artists involved in different movements, such as Surrealism, it is principally associated with The New York School of American Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s, and with the painter Jackson Pollock (1912-56), dubbed "Jack the Dripper". When it first emerged it was seen as one of the most revolutionary events in American art.

For a guide to non-objective art
see: Abstract Paintings: Top 100.
For a list of styles/periods,
see: Abstract Art Movements.

For details of the best modern
painters, since 1800, see:
Famous Painters (1830-2010)

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Modern Paintings.

The Act of Painting

The name "action-painting" was first used in 1952 by the American critic Harold Rosenberg (1906-78), in a review of avant garde art called "The American Action Painters", which appeared in the December edition of Art News. According to Rosenberg, action-painting gave complete freedom to the painter's creative impulses, and made the act of painting more important than the work itself. This view echoed that of abstract expressionists like Pollock, Franz Kline (1910-62), and Willem De Kooning (1904-97), who had long championed the notion that painting was an arena in which the artist was engaged in a spontaneous creative struggle. In their view, painting was a drama of self-revelation. Another influential art critic, Clement Greenberg (1909-94), was equally taken with the idea of the existential-type "struggle", citing the paintings' pitted, clotted and impastoed surfaces as physical evidence of what had occurred. (For an explanation of abstract expressionist paintings, like those produced by Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings: 1800-2000.)


Influenced By Surrealism

The influence of Surrealism and its use of automatism in art, in order to give free artistic expression to the subconscious mind, can clearly be seen in the above analysis. Inspired by Freud's theories of the subconscious, surrealist artists like Andre Breton (1896-1966), Andre Masson (1896-1987) and Joan Miro (1893-1983) were convinced users of this type of involuntary, spontaneous painting, all of which had a significant impact on later abstract expressionists. See, for instance, Pasiphae (1943, Metropolitan Museum of Art) by Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock

Following separate experiments by other abstract painters like Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) and Lee Krasner (1908-84), Pollock himself began employing his splash/drip method in 1947, partly as a result of the surrealists' experience, and also (reportedly) after seeing how Navajo Indians in New Mexico made their sand paintings by sprinkling earth onto the ground to form intricate patterns. (See Sand Art.)

Another possibility is that Pollock heard of experiments conducted in New York during the war, by the emigre surrealist artist Max Ernst (1891-1976), who married Peggy Guggenheim, one of Pollock's most important patrons. Ernst developed a method of using paint dripped from a swinging can.

Pollock worked in a highly spontaneous improvisatory manner, dancing around the canvas pouring, splashing and dripping paint onto it. In this way, he claimed to be channelling his inner impulses directly onto the canvas. Even so, he remained unable to articulate precisely what transpired during bouts of action-painting. He varied between admitting: "When I am in my painting, I am not aware of what I'm doing"; and saying "When I am painting... I can control the flow of the paint; there is no accident." Pollock's extraordinary working methods were widely publicized by Hans Namuth, whose dramatic photos captured the artist at work in his studio in 1950. For more about Pollock's aesthetics and methods, see: Jackson Pollock's paintings (1940-56).

Gestural Abstraction

Other exponents of abstract expressionist painting, notably Kline and De Kooning, used similar methods although not to the same extent as Pollock. Between them, they jettisoned many of the traditional concepts of composition, space, volume and depth, allowing the flatness of the picture plane to take centre stage. Acclaimed by the art critics (except for the New York Times art critic John Canaday) as the heirs to an art tradition - stretching back to the Water Lily pictures of Claude Monet - whose defining characteristic is the making of marks on a flat surface, they formed the core of the "gestural abstraction" style of Abstract Expressionism. This highly active textural style was in stark contrast to the quieter idiom known as Colour Field Painting, practiced by the likes of Mark Rothko (1903-70), Clyfford Still (1904-80), Barnett Newman (1905-70), on the opposite wing of the movement. For US collections which include examples of action painting, see: Art Museums in America.

In Europe, Abstract Expressionism is known broadly speaking as Art Informel, and action-painting as Tachisme.

Given the wide parameters of contemporary art, it is probably only a matter of time before a new generation of 20th century painters develops a postmodernist version of action painting.

Famous Action Paintings

Arguably Jackson Pollock's greatest examples of action painting include:

One (Number 31) (1950) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Lavender Mist (Number 1) (1950) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Blue Poles (Number 11) (1952) National Gallery of Australia.

For earlier forms of expressionism, see: Expressionist Paintings.

• For more about the evolution of painting/sculpture, see: Homepage.

Art Movements
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