Abstract Critical

Painting and Performance

Written by Stephen Moonie


The coincidence of the Tate’s ‘A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance‘ with ‘Explosion! The Legacy of Jackson Pollock’ at the Fundació Joan Miró link makes for an opportune to moment to consider the notions of painting and performance in relation to one another. The term ‘performance’ has generated plenty of debate for quite some time, in terms of both practice and in art historical writing, whereas discussions of the return to painting have come to the fore only more recently. Matters are not clarified by the capacious nature of both terms.  In the wake of shows such as As Painting: Division and Displacement (2001), and more recently, The Indiscipline of Painting (2011), it is evident that painting can no longer be taken for granted: instead it operates within an expanded field across and between media. ‘Performance’, and its related term ‘the performative’, have enjoyed wide currency in a number of academic disciplines, especially since the 1990s.  These terms are by no means easy to define, but one definition worth holding in mind is Judith Butler’s anti-essentialist theory, whereby our identities and their meanings are ‘acted out’ or performed in a social context, rather than possessing a pre-existing meaning. Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous phrase ‘existence precedes essence,’ was the watchword of 1950s Existentialism, and this provides a good place to start: Harold Rosenberg’s essay ‘the American Action Painters’ (1952), often paraphrased as ‘Action Painting.’


Rosenberg’s essay provides what is perhaps the most striking point of departure in its theorisation of the notion of ‘action.’ The essay has boasts a mythical status within art history. It is widely known and frequently cited; however, what Rosenberg actually meant by ‘action’ is less easy to grasp. In this characteristically dense, allusive piece, Rosenberg made the claim that the significance of the new avant-garde painting in the US was to be found in the altered relationship between the artist and the canvas. For Rosenberg, the canvas was no longer a picture to be viewed, but instead ‘an arena in which to act.’ He writes:

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another  as an arena in which to act- rather than a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. [1]

Rosenberg’s notion of action is easily misunderstood. It is not unusual for art-historical commentators to take this phrase, and by implication, the essay as a whole, as a rationale for self-indulgent, macho posturing. The reasons for this particular take on Rosenberg are numerous, but the most important reason is the subsequent development of art practice and its discussion in art-historical writing.  In the light of the de-personalised or serial methods in the 1960s, characterised by Minimalism, Pop and Conceptualism, the motivation for the shift away from painting is accounted for by the need to slay the overbearing myth of the artist-as-lone ranger promoted in Rosenberg’s famous article.

What then, is meant by ‘action’? Fred Orton has claimed, convincingly, that ‘action’ here needs to be understood against the backdrop of the politics of the Left in the 1930s, and particularly, through the readings of Marx. [2] ‘Action’ here meant acting on the stage of history: unlike the bourgeoisie, who dressed themselves in the costume of previous revolutions, the proletariat were ‘past-less’: the American avant-garde, similarly, did not have Europe’s cultural history to draw upon: instead they needed to create themselves anew. [3] The act of painting, then, had an implicitly revolutionary quality: the Action Painters were re-creating the avant-garde, with its attendant social and political implications. Consequently, Rosenberg did not intend the notion of ‘action’ to be aestheticised.

Jackson Pollock, untitled, ca. 1949 © Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Basel/Jackson Pollock/BUS 2012

Although Rosenberg’s notion of ‘action’ is multi-faceted and frequently misread, its subsequent influence is widespread, if not always explicitly acknowledged. The emphasis upon the process of art-making, as against the finished piece, maps onto the shift from painting into the realms of performance at the cusp of the 1960s. The famous images of Jackson Pollock at work, taken by Hans Namuth, can retrospectively be seen as Pollock the performance artist, where the gesture is liberated as an act in itself. Following this, Allan Kaprow’s essay ‘The Legacy of Jackson Pollock’ (1958)  argued for Pollock as the forerunner to what was possible: art as experience, no longer delimited by conventional media. Such experiences were characterised by Happenings, which blurred the lines between art and life with absurdist and frequently disturbing events, utilising the everyday materials which were implicit to Pollock’s procedure. This shift, from painting outwards, has been a recurrent feature of many of the recent histories of art since the 1960s, which stress the idea of painting dispersing into a differentiated realm.  Following the political convictions underlying his notion of action, Rosenberg did not share such a view, writing that, ‘Having insisted that painting is an act, [painters] then claim admiration for the act as art. This turns the act back toward the esthetic in a petty circle. [4]

Rosenberg’s point is unjust to the extent that Kaprow and others were aiming to broaden aesthetic experience, not to domesticate it. Nonetheless, Rosenberg’s barbed comment highlights the relationship between painting and performance as something which cuts both ways: although ‘action’ is thought primarily in terms of the shift from painting outwards (where Pollock’s gesture is rendered as either autonomous, or as an ‘everyday’ action), ‘action’ also takes place within the parameters of painting itself. As Robert Slifkin has noted in a recent article, Rosenberg remarked that the action painting asks the viewer to ‘see each mark as a response to a previous act, what Rosenberg called a “dramatic dialogue” between the painter and the canvas.’ [5] Although Rosenberg mentions no artist by name in his essay, it widely thought that he refers to Willem de Kooning, as opposed to Greenberg’s man, Jackson Pollock. [6] Consider Excavation (1950), where the angular forms which jostle and abut one another: the painting can be viewed in terms of this painterly dialogue. Each mark, each elision or erasure is a conscious or unconscious decision whereby the painter thinks his way through the painting: the work is the congealment of this process.  De Kooning’s restlessness never fixes the canvas, however: in order to keep the surface fresh, he would he would apply newsprint to the canvas to dely the paint drying out. He would even avoid using earth colours in some of his later paintings for the same reason. The constant struggle against ‘finish’ aims keeps the picture surface alive, to prevent it from hardening into academicism. Further to Rosenberg’s claim, de Kooning’s gesture is also an aesthetic decision.

As a viewer, we can at least partially reconstruct this dialogue, imaginatively re-creating the painter’s decisions as we look at the canvas. Performance, here then, is not simply an act which takes place outside or beyond the canvas, but something going on within the painting itself: this is mirrored in the spectator’s viewing of the painting. In this regard there is a unlikely congruence between Rosenberg’s ideas with Clement Greenberg’s remark in a seminar given at Bennington College in April 1971.

Here Greenberg discussed the importance of decision-making. [7] Greenberg argued that the ‘weight’ or ‘density’ of decision-making was the crucial factor in determining aesthetic value.  This was something that the spectator could intuit, and evaluate, by choosing whether or not to accept the rightness of the decisions made by the artist; in this way ‘a symmetry between artist and beholder is established.’ [8] So when the viewer looks at the jostling forms of de Kooning, or Pollock’s loops and skeins of paint, he or she might intuit those decisions, assessing the rightness or otherwise of their placement, hue or density. Despite this, however, the difference between these two conceptions turns upon Greenberg’s notion of the work of art as an aesthetic object, while Rosenberg’s notion is far more capacious. Greenberg is a Classicist; Rosenberg is a Romantic, for whom the art object is always insufficient, always straining towards something grander.  The antagonism at the heart of the dispute between Greenberg and Rosenberg is ultimately between aesthetics and politics. Is the purpose of a work of art to transform society, or does it simply exist to be a successful work of art? This problem cannot be resolved here, but the idea of performance, and of painting, is central to this debate.


In the late 1950s, artistic practice subsequently shifted towards more dead-pan procedures, as a means to escape the burden of Abstract Expressionism.  Rosenberg’s metaphysical speculation seemed too overwrought and overbearing; while Greenberg’s ideas of the push towards flatness seemed somewhat too restrictive. Leo Steinberg, however, formulated an ingenious reworking of Greenbergian flatness in his formulation of the ‘flatbed picture plane’ in the 1970s, although it emerged from the art of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the late 1950s.

Steinberg’s notion is usually considered in terms of its re-orientation of painting from a vertically-oriented viewpoint towards a horizontal receptacle. Instead of being a view onto the world, the picture becomes like a pinboard, a desk or a swept floor. This is unlike previous forms of collage such as those by Picasso and Braque, (and even Dadaist photomontage such as John Heartfield or Hannah Hoch), which still ask to be viewed as an upright field. Rauschenberg, however, applied objects in such a way that up and down are confounded. White Painting with Numbers (1952) contains numerical characters which are scrawled both right-side up and upside-down, leaving the viewer to wonder which way is which. Third Time Painting (1961) is described by Steinberg as follows:

The old clock in… Third Time Painting lies with its number 12 on the left, because the clock face properly uprighted would have illusionized [sic] the whole system into a real vertical plane—like the wall of a room, part of the given world.  Or, in the same picture the flattened shirt with its sleeves outstretched—not like washing on a line, but—with paint stains and drips holding it down—like laundry laid out for pressing. [9]

Third Time Painting also makes visible another aspect of Steinberg’s formulation which renders it particularly appropriate. If the picture surface is a resistant, opaque surface, the act of painting becomes much more explicitly performative: the flatbed can accommodate both objects and actions (although actions which are of a somewhat more quotidian nature: Johns, for instance, compared his brushstrokes to the keystrokes of a typist). The painting may even become part of a performance: First Time Painting was painted in Paris before a live audience; part of an evening of avant-garde events staged by Rauschenberg, Johns, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. [10] Microphones amplified the sounds of the work’s construction, while an alarm clock included in the painting signalled the work’s completion.  The work, then, is as much a record of process—or of performance—as it is a painting.  Or, perhaps more accurately, the performance makes explicit that a painting is a record of process.

Rauschenberg once remarked to Richard Kostelanetz that ‘The only difference between the action of people and the action of paint is that paint is a nuisance because it keeps setting and drying.’ Like de Kooning, Rauschenberg’s art aimed to avoid fixity. Sometimes this was done quite literally; Steinberg notes that in the fifties, Rauschenberg was invited to contribute to a show on ‘nature in art’: ‘Rauschenberg’s entry was a square patch of growing grass held down with chicken wire, placed in a box suitable for framing and hung on the wall. The artist visited the show periodically to water his piece.’ [11] Like de Kooning, whose work Rauschenberg notoriously erased, a similar impulse is at work: whether by the medium of painting, or by other means, the aim is to keep the work alive. Rauschenberg does this through the  cultivation of the growing grass, whereas de Kooning does so through the fraught process of painting and re-painting. Either way, the artist is tending to the artwork somehow: it needs to be lavished with care, as though the moment when the artist ceases to do so, the work might die from neglect. What is perhaps most interesting here is that, instead of Rauschenberg as the enfant terrible, the two artists exhibit a shared impulse: one which centres around the artwork as worthy of attention, rather than seeking to push beyond its limits.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Shooting Picture 1961, Plaster, paint, string, polythene and wire on wood © The estate of Niki de Saint Phalle

If Rauschenberg and de Kooning treat the artwork with care, Niki de Saint Phalle – who was involved in performances involving variants of Johns’ Target paintings – treat the artwork aggressively.  De Saint Phalle fired at the Targets with a rifle, since Johns’ targets were still targets, the sign ‘target’ being identical to the thing depicted. Following this, de Saint-Phalle produced her own series of ‘Shooting Paintings’ in the early 1960s: she stopped the series in 1963 because the procedure was reportedly getting too addictive. De Saint-Phalle’s paintings themselves are almost incidental to the rather gimmicky, mechanised procedure, but the hostility which her method betrays towards painting is grist to the mill of recent theorists like Rosalind Krauss.


The Optical Unconscious (1994) takes a highly theoretical approach to the implications of Pollock’s gesture. Whereas previous notions of performance were based around the actions and processes of the painter, ‘action’ here becomes severed from the artist as an intentional agent.  Krauss’ critique explicitly takes its cue from Greenberg’s notion of ‘opticality.’ Although Pollock’s paintings were made with the use of gravity, with un-stretched canvas laid out on the floor, once hung on the wall they are viewed as purely visual, liberated from the body. Krauss argues that this view ‘sublimates’ Pollock, by favouring the aesthetic quality of his paintings over the messy, gritty materiality which went into their making: the cigarette butts and other bits of detritus in the canvas, not to mention the use of gravity and chance in the making of the work.

To view Pollock’s paintings as vertical is inevitable to the extent that all paintings on a wall are viewed as such. Krauss’ argument, however, subverts Greenberg’s ‘sublimation’ of Pollock by focusing on the horizontal vector not as a viewpoint, but in terms of the processes that go into the work’s production. In doing so, Krauss  takes a provocative look at the multifarious ways in which Pollock has been reinterpreted by subsequent artists such as Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol and Robert Morris: here the use of chance and gravity in Pollock’s drip is re-oriented towards process where the artist embraces the implications of process and materials.

Of particular interest here is the discussion of Robert Morris in relation to Morris Louis. Louis was, for Greenberg and his acolyte Michael Fried, the heir to the tradition of High Modernist abstraction, developing the veils and pours as the next step from Pollock’s drip- a relinquishing the manipulation of the brush in favour of the chance procedures availed by pouring and staining. Krauss takes an interesting view here: given her interest in the informe, surely Morris Louis’ procedures, predicated upon staining’s very lack of form, might lead to him to being included within this rubric? But no, Louis is argued to have ‘righted’ Pollock’s image:

One after another Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland began to ‘draw’ by staining. And one after another they ‘righted’ Pollock’s painting, declaring that the spumes and furls and sprays had all along been verticals, had all along declared an analogy to landscape. Mountains and Sea, said Frankenthaler, smiling. [12]

Louis might have made use of gravity by pouring and staining in the manner of Pollock, but for Krauss, the image is seen as vertical. Unfurled paintings such as Saraband (1959) are characteristic of ‘flames of color, such that what is also imaged forth is fire, is witness to the final, triumphant sublimation of Pollock’s line.’ [13] Krauss can’t resist referring to the juicy biographical anecdote of Pollock famously making an entrance at Peggy Guggenheim’s party, urinating in the fireplace in front of her horrified guests. Surely a gross act of incivility? Quite the contrary: ‘peeing on the fire’ is, for Krauss ‘the destructive barrier to civilisation in an excess of aggression against a symbolically charged nature[.]’ On the other hand, ‘the preservation of fire, is, Freud contends, the first step toward mastering this aggression and producing culture.’ [14] One’s head gets slightly dizzy at times from Krauss’ paradoxical psychoanalysing (it is quite hard from the above passage to work out who is doing what to whom), but to put this in more readily-understandable terms: Pollock is horizontal, Louis is vertical; Pollock is nature, Louis is culture. To put it in normative terms: Pollock is hip, Louis is square. None of this is quite so clear from looking at the work, of course.

The conventional way to look at a piece like Morris’ Untitled (1968) would be to see it as an extension of the dripping and staining techniques adopted by the colour-field painters of the 1960s. Morris moves from the flat object on the wall to the object in space, with its tactile felt surface and ambiguously organic shapes dictated by process and gravity. But with the hindsight of 40 years, Morris and Louis seem less diametrically opposed. One might ask, is there really such a clear distinction between the furls and folds of colour in Louis, and the delicate symmetrical folds and pleats of Morris’ felt sculptures? For all Krauss’ talk of formlessness and bassesse, Morris’ felt pieces have an undoubted aesthetic quality, even if this quality is more tactile: further, they clearly work within the limits of the pictorial, functioning rather like shallow relief pieces. When Greenberg dismissed Morris as ‘tasteful’ in the 1970s, it seemed to furnish further evidence that the critic had lost all credibility. Now, however, it doesn’t seem quite so odd a judgment. It is a strategy which can be seen in art school degree-shows, where materials are scattered across the gallery space (what Dave Hickey calls ‘stuff art’), and has become good taste in itself. Like de Kooning and Rauschenberg, Morris and Louis are engaged in a similar enterprise.

Although Krauss sets Morris and Louis in contradiction to one another, in Morris’ essay ‘Anti Form’ (1968), he groups Pollock and Louis together. He  notes that: ‘It remained for Pollock and Louis to go beyond the personalism of the hand to the direct revelation of matter itself.’ Morris adds:

Of the Abstract Expressionists, only Pollock was able to recover process and hold onto it as part of the end form of the work. Pollock’s recovery of process involved a profound re-thinking of the role of both material and tools in making. [15]

Here Morris suggests that the process in Pollock- his gesture or performance, is a means to discover something about the properties of matter: to allow them to dictate the form of the work. Here performance is de-centred, with the artist less centre-stage, but this does not necessarily involve a shift away from the concerns of painting, as the similarities between Morris and Louis demonstrate.

Lynda Benglis painting a floor with 40 gallons of bright latex and pigments at the University of Rhode Island, 1969 © Henry Groskinsky/ Time & Life Pictures/ Getty Images/ ALL OVER PRESS/BUS 2012

Lynda Benglis also worked in the fluid boundary of painting in the late 1960s and early 1970s: some of these works poured liquid pigmented latex directly onto the floor, using the kinds of day-glo colours which Frank Stella was fond of in the mid-60s: one such work, entitled Hey Hey Frankenthaler (1969), makes clear the relation to painting (albiet a somewhat jokey relation). Photographs of Benglis pouring the pigment on the floor show her dressed in black, as though making a clandestine entry into the gallery. No longer delimited by the picture frame, the pigment poured on the floor is no longer subject to the same kinds of constraints faced by Louis. Unlike Morris’ felt pieces, Benglis’ works have a more pronounced abject quality: the artist referred to the works as ‘toxic oil slicks on the bayou.’

Benglis also produced work during this period using poured polyurethane, which would rise to form bulbous, distended forms like misshapen scones stacked on top of each other. Nonetheless, despite the use of colour, Benglis’ work exhibits a congealed quality, distinct from the more fluid, open-ness considered thus far. Benglis’ work occupies a curious space between painting and process art: as Dave Hickey has noted, Benglis actually withdrew her work from the Whitney exhibition ‘Anti-illusion: procedures and materials’ in 1969. The colour of Benglis’ work was too much to bear for those inclined towards the sober, colourless look of process and postminimal art: it seemed like an offence to its intellectual inclination. [16] On the other hand, her work seems unsatisfactory from the perspective of painting, being too amorphous. Her work is perhaps closer to Krauss’ idea of informe than Morris’, in that it resists being categorised.


Of all the vagaries involved in any discussion of painting and performance, it is clear that the one issue which looms largest is that of agency. Its a term that hasn’t enjoyed a great deal of currency, neither in the aftermath of Post-modern theories of the de-centred subject, nor in relation to the art of celebrity artist-superstars like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami. What is clear from the above, admittedly far from comprehensive discussion, is that performance and painting are closely intertwined, and that the relationship between the two works both ways: painting is not only a pathway into performance, but that many aspects of performance equally lead back into painting, as can be seen by the works of Morris, Kaprow and Benglis. Much of the antagonism towards Rosenberg’s idea of action painting turned on the slightly overbearing notion of the artist-as-lone-ranger, and towards the commodified nature of painting. More recently, these critiques no longer seem credible. Rosenberg’s ideas of action painting, and the practices which have subsequently engaged with it, make clear that painting is a necessary point of departure, not only aesthetically, but in terms of the potential of painting to act as a space of engagement with the viewer, opening up wider social and political possibilities.


1)     Harold Rosenberg, ‘The American Action Painters,’ The Tradition of the New (London: Thames and Hudson, 1962): 25.

2)     Fred Orton, ‘Action, Revolution and Painting,’ Oxford Art Journal, vol.14 no.2, 1991.

3)     Building upon this, Robert Slifkin has recently argued that ‘action’ is also related to conceptions of the self, agency and identity within the increasingly bureaucratised postwar period: in addition to Marx, Slifkin highlights the role of Hannah Arendt in Rosenberg’s thinking.  Robert Slifkin, ‘The Tragic Image: Action Painting Refigured,’ Oxford Art Journal, vol. 34 no.2, 2011.

4)     Rosenberg, p.28.

5)     Slifkin, p. 232; Rosenberg p.33.

6)     Elaine de Kooning has subsequently denied this. See Florence Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg: A Life (New York: Scribner, 1997):171.

7)     The seminar was later rewritten and published as ‘Judgment and the Esthetic Object’ in Studio International, 189, May/June 1975, and reprinted in Homemade Esthetics, Janice van Horne Ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

8)     Greenberg, ‘Judgment and the Esthetic Object,’ in Homemade Esthetics, p. 43.

9)     Leo Steinberg, ‘Other Criteria,’ in Other Criteria: Confrontations with twentieth-century art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007): 88-9.

10)   Nancy Spector, ‘Rauschenberg and Performance, 1963-67: A “Poetry of Infinite Possibilities,”’  in Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson Ed., Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1997): 227.

11)   Steinberg, ‘Other Criteria,’ 86.

12)   Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1994): 290.

13)   Krauss, pp. 291-3.

14)   Krauss, p.293.

15)   Morris, cited in Krauss, 293.

16)   Dave Hickey, ‘A House Built in a Body: Lynda Benglis’ Early Work,’ in Franck Gautherst et al, Lynda Benglis, (Paris: Les Presses du Réel, 2009): 17.