Action Paintings are some of the most compelling examples of modern abstract wall art.
The term generally applies to artists in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s who emphasized the physical act of painting. For these artists, art’s physical and gestural nature was an essential feature of their finished work.
So, who were these action painters?
This brief introduction presents the movement’s leading artists and their colorful abstract paintings. We’ll also discuss Action Painting’s key characteristics and who came up with the term.
Action Painting, sometimes known as “Random Painting” or “Gestural Abstraction,” describes the process of creating art. The process involves gestural brushstrokes, splashing, and dripping paint, as well as using the whole body to make marks.
While the style relates to Abstract Expressionism, Action Painting is a separate art movement. It also hails exclusively from American painters, while there were notable European influences (for instance, the Surrealist work of Max Ernst) in Abstract Expressionism.
This technique is a genuinely dynamic art form that prioritizes the spontaneity of artistic creation over carefully planned compositions and classical ideas.
Action-based artists embrace chance effects and painterly instinct. As a result, these random paintings often use paint randomly splashed, poured, or thrown onto canvases.
The influential art critic Harold Rosenberg first used the phrase “Action Painting” in a 1952 article. Titled The American Action Painters, it defined the genre and prominent artists. For Rosenberg, this included artists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky.
Rosenberg described an artist’s canvas as an “arena” where they acted. This approach meant the action and methods used to create an image were vital. These movements and gestures were more important than the aesthetics of the result.
This signaled a shift in American painting, popular among New York School painters. In addition to Harold Rosenberg, the art critic Clement Greenberg also championed the style. He spoke of the intense “creative struggle” in this type of art.
The highly textured, oil-soaked paintings of Pollock, Kline, and De Kooning exemplified Greenberg’s focus on the “surface” of art. Speaking of their creations, Greenberg described it as a “new kind of art” that wasn’t art in any “accepted sense”.
While Greenberg focused on the “surface” of paintings, Rosenberg redefined art entirely. He described art as a verb rather than an object. Action Painting was, therefore, a process rather than a final product.
Despite the eye-watering auction prices subsequently achieved by Action Painters, their canvases were only the physical residue of the actual work of art.
Harold Rosenberg came up with the term Action Painting. Even so, many Art Historians describe Jackson Pollock as the true father of Action Painting.
In the late 1940s, Jackson Pollock used sticks, syringes, and hardened brushes to splash paint across his canvases. Soon, this encompassed the added technique of splashing, dripping, and pouring paint onto “finished” artworks. Often, Pollock didn’t touch his canvases at all, preferring to throw or flick paint across his studio.
When Pollock first revealed his art, critics were unforgiving. One headline of 1959 described his art as “a joke in bad taste”. Even today, many art lovers and critics dismiss the movement as not “proper” art.
Despite this critical approbation, other contemporary artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Helen Frankenthaler adopted Pollock’s techniques.
The five main characteristics of Action Paintings include:
● A spontaneous, intuitive, and impulsive manner of painting.
● Abstract artworks with a focus on surface texture and mark-making.
● Dynamic, sweeping brush strokes – often moving off the edge of the canvas.
● Dripping, pouring, splashing, scraping, or flicking paint onto finished artworks.
● Creating artworks with canvases on the floor (worked on from above) rather than a traditional artist’s easel.
In short, Action Painting focuses on how artists put paint on canvas rather than the final look or composition of a painting.
It may come as no surprise, but Jackson Pollock is the most famous artist in Action Painting. His most famous artworks include Number 1 (Lavender Mist), No 10., Convergence, and No. 5(1948).
Speaking of these works, Pollock described how he wanted to express his feelings rather than “illustrate” them.
Humorously, when the artist A. A. Ossorio bought No 5. for $1,500 (in 1949), his partner chastised him for spending money on such a chaotic artwork.
In 2006, however, it became one of the most expensive paintings in history, selling for a staggering $140 million.
As well as Jackson Pollock’s famous splatter paintings, the artwork of Franz Kline was fundamental to Action Painting. He created many bold monochrome works, most notably Chief (painted in 1950).
Kline’s simplicity of color enabled a strict focus on the mark-making process itself. Look closely at his artwork; it’s clear he didn’t just paint black on top of white. Instead, Kline layered his paintings carefully and thoughtfully, often painting white on top and next to the black marks.
Willem de Kooning adopted a more figurative approach to Action Painting. Nonetheless, his Woman series is an iconic addition to the movement. Many critics derided his naïve images of the female form, but Kooning described them as modern idols.
While these paintings (for instance, Woman III) presented figures, they also referenced relations of space and color. De Kooning’s sharp, almost jagged brushstrokes still foregrounded the act of painting, explaining his inclusion in the movement.
If you love the colorful abstract painting of American Action Painters, explore our extensive collection of replica paintings for sale. We boast some of the finest modern art oil paintings inspired by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem De Kooning.
Whether it’s Jackson Pollock’s vibrant drip artworks, Franz Kline’s random paintings, or monochrome masterpieces, discover high quality art reproductions for any modern home or office.
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