Art Dictionary

Action-Painting

Ernst Wilhelm Nay, »Mit aphoristischem Rot«

Ernst Wilhelm Nay, »Mit aphoristischem Rot«, 1954
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Action Painting

Action Painting
Jackson Pollock

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Peggy Guggenheim & Frederick Kiesler

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One name in particular is associated with Abstract Expressionism: Jackson Pollock. With his daring techniques, such as action painting, this American painter continues to influence the art scene to this very day.

»Painting is a state of being. . . . Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.« (Jackson Pollock)

»Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cézanne did it. Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again.« (Willem de Kooning)

»Jack the Dripper« was Time magazine´s mocking epithet for one of the most famous American painters of the twentieth century. This was probably because he tried something new: Jackson Pollock dipped his wooden stick into a bucket of paint and went wild, danced across the canvases he laid on the ground, using up gallons of paint in the process. He added shards of glass, wood, sand, and resin to his paintings. Those who loved it called it Action Painting, but for conservatives of the time, Pollock´s Abstract Expressionism was a deformity without any artistic value whatsoever, and the person behind it all was a rabble rouser.

In the early nineteen-fifties, Wyoming-born Pollock was a shooting star in the art world. He nurtured his rebel image, which lay somewhere between genius and desperation. His marriage to artist Lee Krasner was a balancing act involving alcoholic excess, self-doubt, depression, and artistic triumphs. Pollock was killed in a car accident in 1956. His works paved the way for many of his colleagues and significantly contributed to New York´s replacement of Paris as the center of international art.

Owing to the Depression, there was no market for art in the United States in the nineteen-thirties. Many American artists earned a living working on government-sponsored WPA projects. Art took several directions, from the regionalists of the »American Scene« (including Pollock´s teacher, Thomas Hart Benton) to the Formalism that was influenced by Piet Mondrian and Vasily Kandinsky. Their works were not seen in the big museums, however, which were showing modern European masters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. In their own country, the Abstract Expressionists were considered provincial and unoriginal.

The new American avant-garde, however, received a fresh influx of ideas from European artists like Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, and Piet Mondrian, who fled to New York at the start of World War II. Almost all of the Surrealists—Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, André Breton, Max Ernst, and André Masson—also settled there. Their theories about spontaneous creativity and the creation of art through dreams and the unconscious had an enormous influence on artists such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko.

Gallerist Peggy Gugggenheim, the niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was also a crucial link between the American and European art scenes. She had supported and bought the works of avant-garde artists in Europe. Upon her return to New York, she opened her famous gallery, Art of This Century, where, besides the established Abstract Expressionists and Surrealists from the Old World, she also showed comparable American artists. This brought her recognition from many of the artists who were rapidly forming the core of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and William Baziotes all had their first solo shows here.

Pollock was the first American Abstract Expressionist to be taken seriously in Europe. His achievement lay in the creation of his own unique visual worlds, which were not modeled upon European predecessors. At first, though, like many of his contemporaries, he worked with the influence of Mexican muralists. Diego Rivera and especially Gabriel Orozco influenced Pollock´s early work. In addition, he worked with Indian pictographs and the universal archetypes of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. Picasso´s work also lay like a shadow across Pollock´s early works.

In the nineteen-forties Pollock finally conquered new territory with his first drip paintings. Painter David Alfaro Siqueiros probably brought this technique to his attention, although it was Max Ernst who first employed it. Pollock´s solo show at Peggy Guggenheim´s in autumn 1943 featured the first two paintings he created with this method: Composition with Pouring II and Water Birds. Here, however, he was still dripping and pouring paint onto traditionally painted and sectioned surfaces. It wasn´t until 1945 that he finally managed to leave symbolic art behind.

Drip technique was the main thing required for the invention of Action Painting. Here, the inclusion of body movements consciously exaggerated the involvement of the artist´s hand in the act of painting, elevating it to a medium for the expression of internal psychological processes. Physical agility, speed, and the dynamics of the painting process served to exclude the undesired influences of the intellect.

When Peggy Guggenheim returned to Europe in 1947, Pollock had an international breakthrough. At the same time, New York replaced Paris as the Mecca for modern art. America´s superior economic power certainly played a big role in this transition, although without the innovative powers of its artists, the United States would probably not have been able to place itself at the head of International Modernism.

In Europe, Abstract Expressionism manifested in the Informel or Tachism, which established itself mainly in Germany and France in the mid-nineteen-forties. A pioneer in this field was the painter Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) whose dreamy, abstract fantasies have the character of spontaneous recordings. Other well-known artists here included Georges Mathieu, Roger Bissière, Pierre Tal-Coat, Jean René Bazaine, and Arnulf Rainer.

Pollock´s creative peak did not last long. In the early nineteen-fifties, after a few years of abstinence, he began drinking again. In the following year, he reduced his palette to black-and-white. In the large paintings he did in 1953, he made a partial return to brushwork and spackling with the palette knife. During the last two years of his life, he painted almost nothing. In 1956 the totally inebriated forty-four-year-old crashed his car into a tree. To this day, he remains a mythological figure in modern American painting.

16.01.2008 Monika Wolz

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