Action painting also referred to as abstract expressionism, or color field painting came into the art scene after World War II.
It is also a central element of the New York school, a "school" which brought together avant-garde artists (poets, painters, musicians) active in New York and the United States before and after the Second World War.
We speak of abstract expressionism for a certain type of painting, sculpture, and photography. Abstract expressionism was characterized by its uncleanliness and the very energetic use of different colors.
Abstract expressionism is also referred to as gestural abstraction because brushstrokes reveal the artistic process. The whole process is a subject of art in itself. The work of art becomes an event, as explained by Harold Rosenberg. That is why the movement was referred to as action painting.
What is Abstract Expressionism?
It is a process that sees the emotions expressed through the pictorial action. In Abstract Expressionism, we certainly recognize the European influence of Surrealism and Expressionism, but the differences are real and have been evident since the 1940s.
Then, around 1945, two different artistic forms developed from this movement: Action Painting and Color Field Painting. Abstract Expressionism should be considered one of the most important post-war currents that manifest itself as non-figurative painting.
The artist's individuality plays the central role in the work, which is realized through the development of an abstract pictorial language. A particular abstractionism, in which no definite forms appear, and which for this reason is associated with the European Informal, from which it is distinguished, however, by the sense of freedom from tradition and the broader breath; factors influenced by the American context in which the movement itself was born.
The historical moment of the American Depression, the knowledge of Mexican mural painting, Surrealism, Jungian psychoanalysis, and finally, the symbols and rites of the American Indians. These are the elements that inspired these works.
For these artists, art consists in the very act of painting. A revolutionary form of expression, which does not aim at the intellectual representation of external reality (as in Cubism) and which does not even propose to portray the images of dreams and the unconscious (as in Surrealism).
Why the Name ‘Action Painting’?
The term "Action painting" gets full justification, given that the artist realizes himself under the impulse of the urgency of action—"Action" not in a gestural sense, or motor but a psychological and existential sense.
The artist is existent not because he represents anything, but only because he decides to act. "Action" is understood as taking the risk of painting the picture with no project, letting the image arise and reveal itself at the moment, therefore as a self-confirmation of the artist's existence.
History of Abstract Expressionist Movement
The movement was "born" in the New York artistic community in the 1940s. Several names have appeared to evoke certain aspects of American abstract expressionism: action painting, color field painting, or Post-painterly Abstraction.
But the painting of Willem de Kooning, to cite just this major artist of the abstract expressionist movement, does not fall into any of these categories. The origins of Abstract Expressionism are the subject of controversy: is it uniquely American art, or does it owe much to avant-garde European?
In 1929 the MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was inaugurated to present Modern Art to the public. Following the economic crisis in 1935, President Roosevelt set up a WPA artist aid program as part of the New Deal as part of this vast project, which affected 10,000 artists from 1935 to 1943. This was meant to meet the abstract expressionists.
In 1936 American abstract artists organized themselves into an AAA promotional association, an acronym for American Abstract Artists. They published manifestos and articles and demanded the opening of American museums to American abstract artists. Its members were Ben Nicholson, Clement Greenberg, David Smith, Lee Krasner, Piet Mondrian, Ad Reinhardt, etc.
From 1933, the United States welcomed artists who fled Nazi Germany: Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) taught modern art at the University of California (Berkeley) and Art Student League from New York. Lee Krasner, Clement Greenberg, Mark Rothkoare from his pupils.
Hofmann had some influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism, although he relied on Cubist formalism. He introduced the third dimension into his paintings by transforming them into dynamic, highly structured force fields. Hofmann believes that the act of painting has psychological meanings.
In her case, the luxury of color and surface are signs of a hedonistic personality. It differs from the "pessimistic" painting of painters impressionists in his time by expressing his cheerfulness. He is at the origin of the “push and pulls” technique, a synthesis of the color theories of the Parisian and European avant-garde.
Josef Albers (1888-1976) taught at Bauhaus from 1923 to 1933. He was a founding member of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris before migrating to the United States. He is considered one of the initiators of visual art (or "Op art"). Between 1939 and 1942, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta, and André Breton emigrated.
In reality, if we put aside Matta, European artists had little contact with their American counterparts. As early as 1948, the latter laid the foundations for a path specific to the United States. In 1949, it was during the passionate discussions that stirred the Club, at 39, 8th Street East, in New York, that the notion of “abstract expressionism” emerged.
The Club, founded by Kooning, Franz Kline, and a few others quickly attracted personalities as diverse as Ad Reinhardt and Jackson Pollock, in a climate strongly hostile to Clement Greenberg and formalism. In this post-war period that led to the economic boom in the United States, New York became the world capital of avant-garde and, more generally, of modern art. And abstract expressionism is at the center of the debates.
Jackson Pollock: His Role in Abstract Expressionist Movement
Jackson Pollock is considered one of the key members of the abstract expressionist movement. His paintings symbolize a great moment in abstract expressionism. Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is the most popular representative of the New York School, Abstract Expressionism. His abstract paintings make up some of the most essential and popular creations of the 1940s.
The United States painter was stylized as a notable figure of American abstract painting. He was also regarded as a 'Weapon against socialist realism.' Pollock was also considered rebellious, ingenious, but also afflicted by self-doubt.
Pollock caught the painter Mondrian's attention in 1942 with his work Stenographic Figure, which was exhibited during the Spring Salon for Young Artists. Mondrian termed it as "the most interesting work I’ve seen in America so far.” Pollock landed a contract that made him quit his job. He worked in a museum and dedicated all his efforts to artistic creation.
Jackson Pollock was contracted by Peggy Guggenheim to create a large artwork in her house. He created a mural between 1943 and 1944. His paintings make a viewer divert stare. It is a well-crafted work that captures the volcanic force of a specific artist perfectly.
Waves, fragmented lines, and smudges depict how the painting is rhythmic. The Mural created by Jackson Pollock is a huge piece with dimensions 2.5m by 6m. It was composed in one night.
In 1948, Pollock started a series of drip-paintings. His paintings were classified by the dripping technique, the actual strategy of abstract expressionism. To effectively carry out this form of painting, he launched the paint onto the canvas directly through holes in a can. No brushes were used for his paintings. He committed himself fully to this art.
It was not long before Pollock became the symbol of abstract expressionism, thanks to the photographs taken by Hans Namuth. In 1950 only, he produced more than 50 paintings. Unfortunately, his life was too complicated.
Pollock was battling drinking and depression. Despite undergoing rehabilitation and a long abstinence period, he took the alcoholism path again. He was involved in a car accident when drunk, which ended his life and flourishing career at 44.
His works remain more powerful in the history of art and the abstract expressionism movement.
Major Developments of Abstract Expressionist Movement
The movement attracted the attention of the CIA in the early 1950s. They saw it as an optimal means of promoting the US ideal of freedom of thought and the free market, a perfect tool to compete with both the styles of realist socialism prevalent in communist nations and the then-dominant European art market.
The CIA organized and financed the promotion of American artists adhering to Abstract Expressionism through the Congress for Cultural Freedom from 1950 to 1967.
By 1960, the current lost its impact and was no longer as influential as in previous years. Some movements, such as pop art and minimalism, were a counter-response and a rebellion against what abstract expressionism had generated.
However, many painters, such as Fuller Potter, who had created abstract expressionist works, continued to work along this line for many more years, sometimes extending and expanding the aesthetic and philosophical implications of this artistic pursuit.