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Friday, September 30, 2005

Action Painting

Action Painting, abstract, gestural style of painting used by certain members of the abstract expressionist movement. Emerging in New York City in the early 1950s, action painting involves dripping and splashing paint in an impulsive, loosely controlled manner without any predetermined design.

The term of action painting was coined by the American art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 and is best exemplified by the drip paintings of American artist Jackson Pollock, and, to a lesser extent, by the slashing brushstrokes of Dutch-American painter Willem de Kooning. The term can also be applied to individual works or aspects of the work of other American painters, including Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell.

It is sometimes incorrectly used action painting as a synonym for abstract expressionism itself, although the term actually refers to just one of the two major branches of abstract expressionism; the other branch is known as color-field painting.

Action painting has its technical origins in the so-called automatic works of surrealists, such as French painter André Masson, who allowed their subconscious to take over the creative process. Surrealists, influenced by the writings of founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, believed that automatic art had the power to unlock and reveal the subconscious mind through the symbolic and figurative elements that emerged in their paintings.

Although action painters also wished to express the subconscious, they excluded such symbolic and figurative content from their art and instead emphasized the very act of painting itself. An action painting constitutes a moment of the artist’s life frozen in paint, one of the artist’s acts and thus a unique element of the artist’s biography.

It is an expression of the artist’s personality in the most basic way. In his article “The American Action Painters” (ARTnews, December 1952), where the term action painting was first used, Rosenberg described the attitude thus: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined.

What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Action paintings were therefore often understood in very conceptual terms as being merely the results of encounters between an artist and his materials.

Action painting ostensibly eliminated certain traditional artistic practices. For example, the preliminary artist’s sketch no longer had any meaning because it would suggest that the artist was trying to transfer some predetermined image to a final, finished work.

This theoretical understanding of action painting was, however, undermined by artistic practice. Pollock, for example, did sometimes produce sketches before executing a drip painting, and he also cut off parts of his paintings in pursuit of the most aesthetically satisfying result.

Nevertheless, the appearance of action painting suggested a radical break from the European art tradition in a way that was liberating to many American artists accustomed to its dominant influence on their work.

Anne Ahira
Editor The Best Affiliate Newsletter


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