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
Rough Draft Share Due on Monday!

Sula Bermúdez-Silverman VTLS talk

Thursday at 7 PM!

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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
  • Existentialist
  • Metaphysics
  • 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











  • 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












  • Modern art was like philosophy in that it explored conditions under which we experience and understand the world
  • Urged artists to break with traditional dominance of subject matter and narrative
    • Art should not simply illustrate experience
  • Used the fear of communism in support of abstraction and formalism
Hitler touring the Degenerate Art Exhibition, Munich, 1937






















Alfred Baar Jr. on the founding principles of MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum
Alfred H Barr Jr., cover of the Cubism and Abstract Art catalog, MOMA, 1936












  • Borrowing from Kant's argument on philosophy, Greenberg asserts "purification"
  • The arts should remain autonomous
    • Art forms should avoid "confusion" with each other as they are stronger when they do not mix

Kenneth Noland, Tide, 1958.











  • Argued that the avant-garde had not broken with tradition.
    • Rather, that painters were moving towards greater emphasis on the flatness of the picture plane.
    • Dialogue on flatness moved their art away from the Old Masters
    • Artists had previously seen the flatness of the picture plane as a hurdle to overcome in the attempt to depict three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface
  • Content is the effect of the work on the viewer
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952.











Modernist Painting, 1961
  • Traced interest in the flatness of the picture plane back to the Impressionists
  • Considered the history of the avant-garde as a continuous stripping away of subject matter, illusion and pictorial space
    • Favored dialogue on unique, formal qualities of paint
  • Concept of "mainstream" as a strictly linear progression of art history
    • Each new style builds on its predecessors
  • Only one style exists at any given time
    • Ignored all other styles
Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass
(Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe)
, 1863.











  • Concept of "mainstream" as a strictly linear progression of art history
    • Each new style builds on its predecessors
  • Only one relevant style exists at any given time
    • Ignored all other styles
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538.
Diane Arbus, A family one evening at a nudist camp, 1965.











































The State Hospital
Ed and Nancy Kienholz, The State Hospital, 1966.











The State Hospital

Ed Kienholz, The State Hospital tableau, 1966.











First retrospective of Kienholz's work at LACMA in 1966


Back Seat Dodge

Ed Kienholz, Back Seat Dodge '38, 1964.
































Ed Kienholz, Five Car Stud, 1969 - 1972.




















Arte Povera = Arte povera means literally ‘poor art’ but the word poor here refers to the movement’s signature exploration of a wide range of materials beyond the traditional ones of oil paint on canvas, bronze, or carved marble. Materials used by the artists included soil, rags and twigs. In using such throwaway materials they aimed to challenge and disrupt the values of the commercialised contemporary gallery system. - Tate Museum


Michelangelo Pistoletto, Venus of the Rags, 1967 and 1974.











Jannis Kournellis, Untitled (12 horses), 1969.











Michelangelo Pistoletto, Sfera di giornali (Newspaper Sphere) or Walking Sculpture, & 2017.