The Modern World During and After the World Wars, C. 1914–1960

American Art and the Influence of Europe

What is the difference between action painting and color-field painting?

Action painting is a type of abstract expressionism with close ties to surrealist automatism. It is sometimes also called “gestural painting” or “gestural abstraction.” Action painting is improvisational and emphasizes uncontrolled creativity and the process of painting itself. The three main artists associated with action painting are Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, whose works emphasize the physical nature of their creation through large, often frenetic brushstrokes, visible paint drips, and aggressive style. For example, Jackson Pollock painted Eyes in Heat (1946) by squeezing liquid paint directly onto the canvas from the tube and then smearing it. The result is a highly textured canvas filled with swirling painted forms.

Color-field painting is somewhat less aggressive than action painting, though no less emotionally impactful. Color-field painting is characterized by large, abstract areas of solid color, as seen in the work of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, and Helen Frankenthaler. Helen Frankethaler even stained her canvases with color. Both action painters and color-field painters believed that their works were in no way devoid of subject matter, but that color and action were essential to creative expression.


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