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 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). The term was coined by the American critic Harold Rosenberg and according to him the canvas was “an arena in which to act”.
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 peoples perception of the physical and psychological world.
Action painting used 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. This was done by the artist painting “unconsciously,” and spontaneously, creating a powerful arena of raw emotion and action, in the moment.
Together with de Kooning, Jackson Pollock is one of the most famous action painter: he moved away from figurative representation, and challenged the Western tradition of using easel and brush: he used his whole body to paint, placing his canvas on the floor.
“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. … and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added. …When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well. —Jackson Pollock, My Painting, 1956