Abstract Critical

The American Action Painters

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, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.

The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.

The full text of Harold Rosenberg’s ‘The American Action Painters’ is here. Does its image of painting have any relevance today?



  1. Blowie P. said…

    I think that the context for this article in 1952 was that it was written as a preemptive strike against possible criticism from Greenberg of De Kooning’s upcoming exhibition at Sidney Janis’ Gallery. So it was very much intended to create division and encourage people to take sides. Greenberg and Pollock on one side, De Kooning , Rosenberg, Thomas Hess and others on the other. It was also a clarion call and an announcement of the arrival of the new American hero painter. I think in these ways you could say it was a well crafted piece of PR and quite full of bluster, i wonder, because of these things it was an accurate reflection of painting’s development in NY at the time, let alone what relevance it might have for today.
    Interesting stuff though.

  2. jenny meehan said…

    Like this “Criticism must begin by recognizing in the painting the assumptions inherent in its mode of creation. Since the painter has become an actor, the spectator has to think in a vocabulary of action: its inception, duration, direction—psychic state, concentration and relaxation of the will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked.” That strikes me as a very useful point.

    Still reading this (in bits…always interrupted by domestic non-bliss), so will pop back later.

    I think there’s value in recognition of the role action plays in painting, but I find myself that I look for, need, and love, much more, and I want a painting to offer me a structure for thinking and thought which has something very formed…Formed not only through action, but from forethought. I agree with Patrick about Abstract Expressionists being worthy of study and emulation, and I’ve been working recently in a very action orientated way myself, but I am now finding this inadequate…I think moving forward requires something more exciting than just confrontation and response to materials, valuable though that is.

  3. Patrick Jones said…

    I would agree that the Abstract Expressionists are worthy of study and emulation for young painters.They dispayed an amazing degree of single- minded-ness .What bothers me is that almost every painter of note over the age of fifty still uses the six inch brush loaded with pigment as a guarantor of authenticity of feeling.So Franthaler and Louis never made it to the Uk,whereas De Kooning must have appealed to some matcho idea of belle peinture