Action Painters & Their Works

Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

It's an American art form that's all about emotion. In this lesson, learn about action painting and works of the action painting style. Then, take a short quiz to test your knowledge.

Historical Perspective on Action Painting

We expect to see some emotion in a painting, right? But what happens when the painting is all emotion? When you can't see the familiar objects you are used to seeing? If that's what you're looking at, you might just be looking at a painting created in the style of action painting. Action painting is a particular style or technique of painting that emerged after the end of World War II.

Think for a minute about what you know about that era. The Allies had won, Germany was left in virtual ruins, and American television had begun showing us a life of happy families who trusted their government and were not worried about the future of their lives or freedom. Those carefree TV families represent just one side of what Americans were feeling after the war. Many other families were concerned about the future and the potential spread of Communism during the era known as The Cold War, which lasted from the end of World War II to 1991.

Just as television portrayed the happiness and relief of some, action painting expressed the emotions and confusion of others. When art critic Harold Rosenberg first called it action painting in an essay he wrote in 1952, he was putting a name on a new form of expression about the feelings many Americans had in the era after World War II. He reviewed the works of a number of American painters who were working with emotion more than objects and feelings more than forms.

Action painting is part of the Abstract Expressionism art movement of the 1940s and 1950s that emphasizes the bold use of color and splatters of paint on the canvas instead of clearly defined objects. The goal is to show feelings and not objects on the canvas, and the idea of action painting comes from the fact that your eye is in constant motion trying to figure out where to look next at the painting in front of you.

The Abstract Expressionists as Action Painters

Several painters made up the boldly emotional Abstract Expressionism movement in American. The most well-known is Jackson Pollock. Pollock (1912-1956) was an American-born painter who used ordinary house paint, sticks, and even a device that looked like an old coffee percolator to create his works. He put the canvas on the floor and threw the paint onto it, claiming it brought him closer to his work. This is Pollock's Autumn Rhythm.

Autumn Rhythm
Pollock Autumn Rhythm

Do you see the emphasis on color and the lack of objects and forms here? Are your eyes struggling with where to look next? What emotions does it bring out in you?

Dutch-born Willem de Kooning and his wife Elaine also became members of the movement and used the action painting technique after moving to America. Willem's works were among those reviewed by Harold Rosenberg and were instrumental in creating the definition of action painting. Notice, though, how de Kooning's style of action painting in Woman VI differed from that of Pollock's:

Woman VI
Willem de Kooning Woman VI

In the de Kooning painting, we see elements that remind us of a woman that appear to have been painted quickly, whereas in the Pollock there are no discernible ideas of autumn at all.

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