Action vs. Abstraction

Jackson Pollock

"Where the Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can look, can travel through, only with the eye." - Clement Greenberg
"Today, each artist must undertake to invent himself, a lifelong act of creation that constitutes the essential content of the artist's work. The meaning of art in our time flows from this function of self-creation." - Harold Rosenberg



Exam 2 will be posted on Friday, October 26 and will be due Monday, October 29

Robert Arneson, Jackson Pollock, 1983.











Action/ Abstraction
Norman L. Kleebatt, "Action, Abstraction, Reaction" in
Action/ Abstraction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

The Story of Art: Greenberg vs. Rosenberg
Timothy Quigley's Rosenberg Greenberg Presentation
Harold Rosenberg
Clement Greenberg
Harold Rosenberg
1906 - 1978
Clement Greenberg
1909 - 1994
Earned law degree
Studied English literature
Art critic for The New Yorker 1967 - 1978
Art critic for The Nation 1942 - 1949
Actively wrote about art 1952 - 1978
Actively wrote about art 1939 - 1972



Expression of the individual

All-Over composition

Gestural marks declared artist's heroic existence

Large expanses of color

Content came from the activity of making

Content is the effect of the work on the viewer

Politics, psychology, and phenomenological

Subject matter should be avoided like a plague

Letting the picture happen

Making the picture

Ab Ex was a radical break with the past

Ab Ex was a coninuation of modern progression towards abstraction












American art after WWII had radically broken with the past, and ruptured tradition

Woman I

    • emphasized the creative act and the individual
Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950 - 1952.











The American Action Painters, 1952

  • Interpreted American art after WWII through existentialism
  • Artists now saw the canvas as an "arena in which to act"
    • Artists as individuals engaged in the creative process as an escape from the alienation of the modern world
    • Content came from activity of making (the creative act)
Hedda Sterne, Machine 5, 1950.











The Tradition of the New, 1959

City and Landscape

  • Abstract Expressionism represented a starting point forward

"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.... The lone artist did not want the world to be different, he wanted his canvas to be a world. Liberation from the object meant liberation from the “nature”, society and art already there."

Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955.










  • The goal is no longer to produce an object of aesthetic pleasure
    • Rather, the purpose is to embody the inner dimensions of the psyche on the canvas-a record of the event of painting
    • "The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life."
  • The motive for painting was more important than the medium
Elaine de Kooning, Harold Rosenberg, 1956.











Action Painting: A Decade of Distortion,1962


  • Rosenberg argued that Greenberg's formalism was academic
    • Attacked Greenberg's personal involvement in the making and selling of artist's works who he championed
Purchased by Eli Broad in 2005 for $23.8 milion making it the most expensive contemporary work sold at auction at the time
David Smith, Cubi XXVII, 1965.












  • The problem was that modern art had been "institutionalized" and promoted solely on "aesthetic quality" by the "bureaucrats of taste"

    • As a result, modern art had lost its relevance to the public and art criticism had failed to reflect contemporary experience.
    • Art had become just another commodity.
Dorothy Dehner, Formulation, 1969.










  • Connected Abstract Expressionism with the goals of earlier avant garde movements like Dada and Surrealism
    • The avant garde opened up the future for art by allowing infinite possibility
    • Importantly, these radical breaks argued for the integration of art with life
Allan Kaprow in Life magazine 1967













Avant-Garde and Kitsch, 1939
  • Modern art was a means of resisting the leveling of culture produced by capitalism
  • Distinction between high and low art/ culture
    • kitsch = mass produced, low quality, consumer culture