Rosenberg Defines “Action Painting” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Harold Rosenberg’s article “The American Action Painters” in the December, 1952, issue of Art News gave a name to the controversial painting style of Jackson Pollock and other avant-garde artists of the postwar era, helping to define the values and contours of the stylistic movement.

Summary of Event

Harold Rosenberg was a lawyer, a poet, a painter, and a critic of literature and art. He had been a Trotskyite Marxist in the 1930’s and was always an admirer of—and advocate for—Surrealism and other French movements in art and ideas. His long years on the Advertising Council had given him a knack for the catchy phrase. (He had helped invent Smokey the Bear.) His December, 1952, Art News article “The American Action Painters” was noteworthy not because it led to important developments in the techniques or theories of artists but because it gave a vivid name to the practices of certain abstract expressionist painters, notably Jackson Pollock. The genius of the article lay in its title, for the essay itself was opaque, abstract, and oblique. Moreover, Rosenberg mentioned no painters, leaving his readers to guess at his targets; the article was dismissed contemptuously by many knowledgeable art critics. Action painting Painting Abstract expressionism Art criticism "American Action Painters, The" (Rosenberg)[American Action Painters] [kw]Rosenberg Defines “Action Painting” (Dec., 1952)[Rosenberg Defines Action Painting] [kw]"Action Painting", Rosenberg Defines (Dec., 1952)[Action Painting, Rosenberg Defines] [kw]Painting", Rosenberg Defines “Action (Dec., 1952)[Painting, Rosenberg Defines Action] Action painting Painting Abstract expressionism Art criticism "American Action Painters, The" (Rosenberg)[American Action Painters] [g]North America;Dec., 1952: Rosenberg Defines “Action Painting”[03950] [g]United States;Dec., 1952: Rosenberg Defines “Action Painting”[03950] [c]Arts;Dec., 1952: Rosenberg Defines “Action Painting”[03950] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Dec., 1952: Rosenberg Defines “Action Painting”[03950] Rosenberg, Harold Pollock, Jackson Greenberg, Clement De Kooning, Willem

Behind Rosenberg’s labored obscurity, however, lay a raucous chapter in the history of the abstract expressionist movement. The story began in the summer of 1952, with a dinner that Harold and May Rosenberg Rosenberg, May held at their home and to which they invited Jackson Pollock and his wife and fellow painter, Lee Krasner Krasner, Lee . Pollock got drunk, sneered at the pretentiousness of Rosenberg’s talk about art, and went upstairs to sleep. Krasner then attacked Rosenberg for his remarks about Pollock, and the evening ended sourly.

One thing that especially grated on Rosenberg was Pollock’s boost to fame by Clement Greenberg, a fellow critic whom Rosenberg detested. Not only were Greenberg and Pollock as a critical and creative team hostile to Rosenberg, but Greenberg had also feuded with Willem de Kooning, Pollock’s greatest rival in abstract expressionism and a painter whose work Rosenberg had promoted. Thus, the stage was set for a manifesto in which Rosenberg sought to vanquish his enemies.

What would his approach be? Rosenberg had by this time moved on from his 1930’s Marxism, but he still railed against the suppression of genius in a capitalist economy that spawned a vulgar mass culture. Always enamored of all things French, Rosenberg fastened on the modishness of post-World War II existentialism and its preachments of self-creation. (Other artists, such as Robert Motherwell and Richard Huelsenbeck, had asserted similar heroic visions in the 1940’s.)

Rosenberg himself had already written in 1948 of the artist as revolutionary hero, free and unalienated and “making a new self through his actions.” By the time Rosenberg came to write “The American Action Painters,” then, other artists (including Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still), embittered by their failure to win a public for their paintings, had responded to their own obscurity by blaming a philistine public and proclaiming that only the act of painting itself had value. Mimicking this line, Pollock had himself held forth to Rosenberg on the holy act of painting.

Rosenberg announced in his essay that “at a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. . . . What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” He added that the big moment came when it was decided to paint. “. . . Just to paint. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value—political, aesthetic, moral.” His main idea was simple and clear. The trouble began with Rosenberg’s condemnation of the laziness that infected much of the practice and his scorn for “never so many unearned masterpieces!” A corollary of this laziness, he said, was a frequent “megalomania,” and he commented that the “mystical dissociation of painting as an ineffable event has made it common to mistake for an act the mere sensation of having acted—or of having been acted upon.”

Rosenberg in his essay is clearly not only identifying a phase of abstract expressionism but also pointing an accusing finger at artists he perceives as phonies. His vagueness encourages speculation: Some readers have identified Willem de Kooning as the unnamed central figure of the polemic, but Rosenberg generally liked de Kooning and probably even wanted to establish his preeminence over Pollock. The argument for Pollock makes better sense, especially in light of the difficult relationship between Pollock and Rosenberg. The coyness of the article, for example, is understandable when Rosenberg’s dilemma is understood: He has a thesis to present, but the painter whose work illustrates it best is Jackson Pollock—whom Rosenberg deeply dislikes and at whose paintings he sneers.

A sensational article in Life magazine for August 8, 1949, had made Pollock famous for his drip-painting technique, and his name was probably the first that would leap to most readers’ minds with the use of the term “action painting.” He also suited Rosenberg’s ideological purpose well, for action painting must dramatize its creator’s intense inner personal revolt and signify the growth of an existential self constantly feeding on its creative overflow. Acting on the canvas and nurturing the self are insufficient, though; the artist must be sincere (one of modish existentialism’s most cherished attributes), and it is easy to read Pollock into the essay at this point. He is the artist with “megalomania” whose “daily annihilation” in his art is only “apocalyptic wallpaper.” Rosenberg pronounces: “The man who started to remake himself has made himself into a commodity with a trademark.”

The implications of Rosenberg’s obscure, puzzling article escaped most readers even if tenacity took them all the way through it, but the painter Paul Brach Brach, Paul attacked Rosenberg directly. “I think you wrote that article just to tear down Jackson,” Brach insisted. In reply, Rosenberg told Brach that he was “a smart kid.” The upshot of it all was that “The American Action Painters” became a sensational success. The phrase had just the right cachet to provoke the New York art cenacles (as Tom Wolfe has called them) to excited, if superficial, controversy. For the artists themselves, “action painter” suggested life lived on the edge, a macho style that often justified years of chaotic subsistence and verbal—and physical—brawling.

Rosenberg denied that the article was about Pollock, but he insisted that even though Pollock had used the term “action painting” first, he had done so only after Rosenberg “had put the idea in Jackson’s mouth.” Rosenberg’s description of Pollock “painting like a monkey” unleashed a war of the wives, with Lee Krasner charging de Kooning with “craving recognition at Jackson’s expense” and Rosenberg of “pushing Jackson out of the way to get de Kooning in.” May Rosenberg responded that Krasner wanted to “destroy everybody except for Jackson.” Pollock’s own response to the uproar over Rosenberg’s article is caught nicely in a story told by a onetime neighbor of Pollock’s, Charles Boultenhouse, who arrived at Pollock’s home one day to find the painter drunk and in a great ire over the whole subject: “Jackson had this huge kitchen knife, great for dicing and mincing, which he was playing with and muttering ’action painting’ with utter hatred, and Lee [Krasner] was standing behind him, stroking his head and trying to soothe him, saying, ’Now, you know you’ve gotten over that, Jackson, you’ve gotten over that.’”

Significance

“The American Action Painters” did not herald a nascent movement in American art as much as it provided a noisy benediction for a moribund one. The action painting chapter in American art history is a phase of abstract expressionism, best understood in terms of what preceded it and what evolved out of it. In its spontaneity, action painting had affinities with Leonardo da Vinci’s Leonardo da Vinci insight into the use of stains, or blots, as the inspirational starting point for creativity. The Russian-born Englishman Alexander Cozens Cozens, Alexander took Leonardo’s stains a bit further in his eighteenth century “blot drawings.” Cozens began with a cluster of haphazard blots and developed them into finished compositions.

For both Leonardo and Cozens, though, blots were mere means, never ends in themselves, and neither of them saw a blank canvas as the setting to dramatize the struggle of the emerging self. The French word tache, for “blot” or “stain,” was used to describe a technique (known as tachisme) that went beyond the efforts of Leonardo and Cozens and was in fact very much like Pollock’s style.

One of the German abstract expressionists, Wassily Kandinsky Kandinsky, Wassily , who divided his life between Moscow and Germany, painted abstract works before 1914 that greatly resemble Pollock’s drip paintings. Indeed, the term “abstract expressionism” was first used by the critic Alfred Barr in reference to Kandinsky’s work. Relating the German movement to the American is difficult, however, and the attempt to define artists in relation to such movements often tends merely to obscure the individuality of the artists involved.

One significant figure in art theory looms behind the abstract expressionists: John Graham Graham, John . In 1937, Graham published System and Dialectics of Art, System and Dialectics of Art (Graham) in which he made the following claim: “No technical perfection or elegance can produce a work of art. A work of art is neither the faithful nor distorted representation, it is the immediate and unadorned record of an authentic intellecto-emotional REACTION of the artist set in space.” Graham’s doctrine was almost certainly known to Arshile Gorky, de Kooning, Pollock, and others of the soon-to-be abstract expressionists, and it is hard to believe that Graham was not a powerful influence on them. For Pollock, particularly, who was always sensitive about his weak draftsmanship and whose personality was charged with tensions, a theory such as Graham’s that stressed a “flow of feeling” would have been especially reassuring.

The New York School New York School (painting) included not only Gorky, de Kooning, and Pollock, but also Clyfford Still, Robert Baziotes (a favorite of Rosenberg’s), Mark Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb, among others. Their roots were in Surrealism, and their works revealed psychological themes more than the emotional subject matter of the expressionists, but they became known by the name that still designates them collectively—abstract expressionists. By the end of the 1940’s, however, their Surrealistic phase had worn itself out.

In the period from 1947 to 1950, Pollock was executing his drip paintings, standing over his canvases and letting paint drip onto their surface in a creative mode that stressed the “automatic.” For this technique, exemplified in such famous works as One (Number 31) One (Number 31) (Pollock) (1950) and Echo Echo (Pollock) (1951), Pollock was sometimes referred to as “Jack the Dripper.” It is the paintings of Pollock’s from this period that constitute the second phase of abstract expressionism and that are defined in Rosenberg’s disquisition on “action painting.” One feature of these works is their “all-overness,” that is, their even distribution of design without a sense of beginning or climax. This is the quality that Rosenberg probably had in mind when he sneered at the “apocalyptic wallpaper” of the spurious action painters.

The third and final phase of abstract expressionism, overlapping with the second, occurred with Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. Their paintings of the middle to late 1950’s often display a preoccupation with hues presented in rectangles, blotches, and other nonrepresentational figures. These works clearly represent the end of a movement, and with them the stage is set for the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein and the creations of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and others in the 1960’s. Action painting Painting Abstract expressionism Art criticism "American Action Painters, The" (Rosenberg)[American Action Painters]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emmerling, Leonhard. Jackson Pollock. London: Taschen, 2003. Study of the work and aesthetics of the artist at the center of the action painting movement, and who first coined the phrase.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horvath, Brooke. “James Schuyler’s Early Art Criticism and the Poetics of Action Poetry.” Denver Quarterly 24 (Spring, 1990): 53-67. Horvath relates Rosenberg’s article to the tenets of those he judges to be action poets: Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery. A useful introduction to a little-known subject; has a good bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Naifeh, Steven, and Gregory White Smith. Jackson Pollock: An American Saga. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1989. This excellent biography tells for the first time the whole story of the events behind Rosenberg’s article. Chapter 41, “Against the World,” is indispensable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Barbara. American Painting: The Twentieth Century. Rev. ed. New York: Rizzoli, 1986. Rose’s chapter on “The New York School” is especially informative. She identifies John Graham as a probable influence on the action painters and sorts out the whole abstract expressionist movement into three identifiable phases.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenberg, Harold. “The American Action Painters.” In The Art World: A Seventy-Five-Year Treasury of Art News, edited by Barbaralee Diamonstein. New York: Art News Books, 1977. The famous essay that began the controversy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfe, Tom. The Painted Word. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975. A witty but hostile view of the claustrophobic New York art scene dominated by Greenberg, Rosenberg, and the abstract expressionists. Wolfe does not get everything quite right (he mistakenly identifies de Kooning as the object of Rosenberg’s malice in his article), but the chapter “Greenberg, Rosenberg & Flat” should not be missed.

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