About this term
Source: Oxford University Press
Term applied to the work of American Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and, by extension, to the art of their followers at home and abroad during the 1950s. An alternative but slightly more general term is gestural painting; the other division within Abstract Expressionism was colour field painting.
The critic Harold Rosenberg defined action painting in an article, ‘The American Action Painters’ (1952), where he wrote: ‘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 canvas was not a picture but an event’. This proposition drew heavily, and perhaps crudely, upon ideas then current in intellectual circles, especially in the wake of Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (Paris, 1946; Eng. trans., 1948), which claimed that ‘there is no reality except in action’. In the 1940s Herbert Ferber, Barnett Newman and others had already characterized their creative process in similar terms; Rosenberg was probably also inspired by photographs of Pollock at work (rather than the actual paintings) that emphasized his apparent psychological freedom and physical engagement with materials. ‘Action painting’ became a common critical term to describe styles marked by impulsive brushwork, visible pentiments and unstable or energetic composition (for illustration), which seemed to express the state of consciousness held by the artist in the heat of creation. Action painting thereby shared the spontaneity of Automatism. Although this implicit, direct synthesis of art and consciousness is questionable, the spontaneous methods associated with the concept were paralleled in European movements such as Tachism and Art informel.
From Grove Art Online