The End of Objectness
Prior to Rosenberg’s observation, no respected art critic had ever suggested in writing that the point of an artist’s work wasn’t to create something tangible. It was taken for granted that the purpose of being an artist was to create works of art. But what Rosenberg observed about painters like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning was that they were not focused on creating objects. Rather they were focused on their own process as painters. They were placing the utmost importance not on the finished product, but on the act of connecting to their own unconscious. The painting was simply a way for them to record the resulting effects of that connection.
Imagine being blindfolded and given a paintbrush then being told to find your way through a maze while running the paintbrush along the surface of the wall. The resulting mark left on the wall would not be an aesthetic achievement so much as it would be a record of your journey. Such was the root of Rosenberg’s observation: that the action painters were not making images; they were making outward recordings of their inward journeys.
Jackson Pollock - Number 31, 1950
Action Painting Techniques
When a painter sets out to make a painting of a specific image, the tools and techniques involved need to offer the painter as much control as possible. But if the point of a painting is not to make a specific, pre-determined image, but is rather to create an abstract visual relic of a psycho-physical event, the painter can enjoy more flexibility in terms of tools and techniques. Since action painting is about spontaneity and being able to seamlessly convey every subconscious intuition through a physical gesture, anything that hinders freedom and instinct must be abandoned.
The action painter Jackson Pollock abandoned traditional preparations and supports and instead painted directly onto unprimed canvases laid out on the floor. He forewent traditional tools opting instead to apply paint to his surfaces using whatever he happened to have, including house painting brushes, sticks or even bare hands. He often flung, poured, splashed and dripped paint onto his surfaces directly from whatever container the paint was in. And he used whatever medium was handy, including all manners of liquid paint, as well as broken glass, cigarette butts, rubber bands and whatever else his instinct commanded.
Franz Kline - Mahoning,1956
In addition to being free with mediums, tools and techniques, the action painters also released themselves from the constraints of their own physicality. Franz Kline’s action paintings are all about physical gesture. Each bold mark Kline made on the canvas is a record of a moment when his body was fully engaged in motion. Whereas an Impressionist brushstroke is made something so subtle as the flick of a wrist, Kline’s brushstrokes were made by a thrust of his whole arm, or his entire body, as guided by the inner reaches of his mind.
Pollock often made no contact with the canvas at all. Instead he relied on momentum and the dynamic use of his body, creating speed and power to project the medium into space and onto the surface. By not hindering his motion by contact with the surface he was collaborating with the powers of nature, which resulted in free-flowing, elegant and organic-looking marks. In a sense, Pollock and Kline’s gestures were not only creating marks, they were making impacts. Like meteor craters, these impacts can be appreciated both for their appearance and also for the primal, ancient, natural forces that caused them.
Jackson Pollock - Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950
The Conscientious Unconscious
The rise of action painting was not a mystery. It had logical roots in the context of post-World War II American culture. American society at large was recovering from war and adjusting to a strange new modern reality. In their efforts to understand themselves and their world, people became increasingly interested in psychology, especially ideas surrounding subconscious and unconscious thoughts. In the minds of the American action painters, these ideas tied in directly with the work the Surrealists had done with automatic drawing, which involved letting the body create marks based on reflexive movements inspired by unconscious impulses.
Their thinking also tied in with primitive traditions found in the totemic artwork of Northern American native cultures. Totemic art is tied in with a belief that people are connected to each other, to history and to the natural and spiritual worlds through certain natural objects, or through beings that possess spiritual or mystical powers. The action painters hoped that through their intuitive, subconscious painting style they could channel totemic imagery that viewers could connect with in the presence of the aesthetic relics of their process.
Jaanika Perna - Spill (REF 858), 2011, 35.8 x 35.8 in
Action Painting’s Legacy
The preciousness of the gift that action painting gave to future generations of artists cannot be overstated. Harold Rosenberg’s thoughtfully stated observations inspired a tremendous change in Modernist art. He gave words to the thought that process is more important than product. He proved that the journey really is more important than the destination, or if that sounds too cliché, he proved that the drama that unfolds during the process of a painter’s creative act is more important than the relic that results from that process.
Rosenberg’s realization freed ensuing generations of artists from thinking about their work solely in terms of “product making.” They could engage in experimental processes and focus fully on ideas. They had permission to begin without having to predict the end results. Without this shift in the consciousness of artists, we never would have been able to enjoy “happenings” or the work of conceptual artists or the Fluxus movement. We never would have been able to experience the ephemeral, transient mysteries of land art. We never would have enjoyed the fruits of the alternative art space movement. In so many ways, it was action painting that enabled artists to shift their focus away from where exactly they were going, and to remind themselves that often the most important thing in art and in life is how they get there.
Featured Image: Jackson Pollock - Number 32, 1950, detail.
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, in his essay "The American Action Painters", 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, Franz Kline 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. "Some of the labels that became attached to Abstract Expressionism, like "informel" and "Action Painting," definitely implied this; one was given to understand that what was involved was an utterly new kind of art that was no longer art in any accepted sense. This was, of course, absurd." – Clement Greenberg, "Post Painterly Abstraction".
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. The newer research tends to put the exile-surrealist Wolfgang Paalen in the position of the artist and theoretician who used the term "action" at first in this sense and fostered the theory of the subjective struggle with it. In his theory of the viewer-dependent possibility space, in which the artist "acts" like in an ecstatic ritual, Paalen considers ideas of quantum mechanics, as well as idiosyncratic interpretations of the totemic vision and the spatial structure of native-Indian painting from British Columbia. His long essay Totem Art(1943) had considerable influence on such artists as Martha Graham, Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman; Paalen describes a highly artistic vision of totemic art as part of a ritual "action" with psychic links to genetic memory and matrilinear ancestor-worship.
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, Performance art, Installation art and Earth Art.
It is essential for the understanding of action painting to place it in historical context. A product of the post-World War II artistic resurgence of expressionism in America and more specifically New York City, action painting developed in an era where quantum mechanics and psychoanalysis were beginning to flourish and were changing people's perception of the physical and psychological world; and civilization’s understanding of the world through heightened self-consciousness and awareness.
The preceding art of Kandinsky and Mondrian had freed itself from the portrayal of objects and instead tried to evoke, address and delineate, through the aesthetic sense, emotions and feelings within the viewer. Action painting took this a step further, using both Jung and Freud’s ideas of the subconscious as its underlying foundations. The paintings of the Action painters were not meant to portray objects per se or even specific emotions. Instead they were meant to touch the observer deep in the subconscious mind, evoking a sense of the primeval and tapping the collective sense of an archetypal visual language. This was done by the artist painting "unconsciously," and spontaneously, creating a powerful arena of raw emotion and action, in the moment. Action painting was clearly influenced by the surrealist emphasis on automatism which (also) influenced by psychoanalysis claimed a more direct access to the subconscious mind. Important exponents of this concept of art making were the painters Joan Miró and André Masson. However the action painters took everything the surrealists had done a step further.
Notable action painters
References and notes
- ^Boddy-Evans, Marion. "Art Glossary: Action Painting". About.com. Retrieved 20 August 2006.
- ^Rosenberg, Harold. "The American Action Painters". poetrymagazines.org.uk. Retrieved 20 August 2006.
- ^Stokstad, Marilyn, 2008, Art History, 3:d edition, London, Pearson Education, p. 1133.
- ^Andreas Neufert, Auf Liebe und Tod, Das Leben des Surrealisten Wolfgang Paalen, Berlin (Parthas) 2015, S. 494ff.
- Rosenberg, Harold The Tradition of the New (1959) - Ayer Co Pub - ISBN 0-8369-2127-5
- Wills, Garry Action Painting in Venice (1994)
- Marika Herskovic, American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s An Illustrated Survey, (New York School Press, 2003.) ISBN 0-9677994-1-4
- Marika Herskovic, New York School Abstract Expressionists Artists Choice by Artists, (New York School Press, 2000.) ISBN 0-9677994-0-6
- Hrebeniak, Michael. Action Writing: Jack Kerouac's Wild Form, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2006.