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Action Painting

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Franz Kline (American, 1910–1962). Painting Number 2. 1954. Oil on canvas, 6' 8 1/2" x 8' 9" (204.3 x 271.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph H. Hazen and Mr. and Mrs. Francis F. Rosenbaum Funds, 1969. © 2010 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term action painting in 1952, writing that "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.... What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event."

Specifically, the term describes the work of artists who painted with gestures that involved more than just the traditional use of the fingers and wrist to paint, including also the arm, shoulder, and even legs. Often the viewer can see broad brushstrokes or other evidence of the physical action that took place before the canvas, and in many of these works of art the kinetic energy that went into the making of the painting remains vivid.

Although "action painting" became to some degree synonymous with Abstract Expressionism, it didn't apply to all of those artists. For example, Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman left little or no trace of the artist's touch. On the other hand, the works of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline exemplify action painting.

Willem de Kooning (American, born The Netherlands, 1904–1997). A Tree in Naples. 1960. Oil on canvas, 6' 8 1/4" x 70 1/8" (203.7 x 178.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, 1967. © 2010 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term action painting in 1952, writing that "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.... What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event."

Specifically, the term describes the work of artists who painted with gestures that involved more than just the traditional use of the fingers and wrist to paint, including also the arm, shoulder, and even legs. Often the viewer can see broad brushstrokes or other evidence of the physical action that took place before the canvas, and in many of these works of art the kinetic energy that went into the making of the painting remains vivid.

Although "action painting" became to some degree synonymous with Abstract Expressionism, it didn't apply to all of those artists. For example, Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman left little or no trace of the artist's touch. On the other hand, the works of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline exemplify action painting.

Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956). Echo: Number 25, 1951. 1951. Enamel paint on canvas, 7' 7 7/8" x 7' 2" (233.4 x 218.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest and the Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller Fund, 1969. © 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term action painting in 1952, writing that "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.... What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event."

Specifically, the term describes the work of artists who painted with gestures that involved more than just the traditional use of the fingers and wrist to paint, including also the arm, shoulder, and even legs. Often the viewer can see broad brushstrokes or other evidence of the physical action that took place before the canvas, and in many of these works of art the kinetic energy that went into the making of the painting remains vivid.

Although "action painting" became to some degree synonymous with Abstract Expressionism, it didn't apply to all of those artists. For example, Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman left little or no trace of the artist's touch. On the other hand, the works of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline exemplify action painting.