Every year during Holi, the sight of full-grown men and women lustily smearing one another with gulal makes me think of ‘action painting’. There is a primal pleasure in being able to let go and behave as children might, though in the world of adults the act of touching a fellow human being, even during heady carnival season, usually comes with reasonable restrictions.
If apocryphal accounts are to be believed, action painting also began in fun and games, if not sheer self-indulgence. In 1942, American artist Jackson Pollock was fooling around with the abstract expressionist, William Baziotes, in the New York studio of the surrealist, Gerome Kamrowski. There were cans of lacquer paint lying handy, and an unfinished canvas by Kamrowski which did not seem to be going anywhere. So, like a spoilt brat, Baziotes began to drip white paint on to the canvas moodily, while Pollock started flipping it around with a knife with intense concentration. This bizarre collaboration not only resulted in an inspired piece of work but also ushered in a new wave of modernism in art.
Over time, Pollock’s wild abandon with paint led to some of the most celebrated works in the history of modern art—colossal canvases filled with squiggles, doodles, splashes of colour or splattered with paint with a violence that feels intensely liberating. There were the initial guffaws from critics and collectors—Pollock was christened “Jack the Dripper”—but his genius triumphed in the end. From being a cult hero, he became a part of the pantheon, a giant among conceptual artists who gave a distinct vocabulary to 20th century painting.
In his 1952 essay “The American Action Painters”, critic Harold Rosenberg wrote that for artists like Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg or Franz Kline, the canvas was “an arena in which to act”. “Gestural abstraction”, the outcome of action painting, was meant to emphasize the physical act of painting rather than the visual aspects of the finished work. In Pollock’s case, the dizzy swirl of colours reflected his troubled personality, plagued by a long battle with alcoholism, depression and other demons. Although linked to automatism, the ‘spontaneity’ of action painting was choreographed by a mighty imagination.
What makes the rise of action painting, and of avant-garde art in general, so fascinating is the way their practitioners radically challenged socially entrenched notion of value. Why do we reprimand children when they go reckless with crayons or paint and express themselves liberally on walls or other such sacrosanct surfaces, while we stand amazed, humbled and overwhelmed before a Jackson Pollock? We can’t imagine displaying a urinal in our drawing-rooms but have nothing other than reverence for the same when we encounter it as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain inside the white cube of the gallery. The more baffling question perhaps is what makes collectors pay millions to acquire these works that have nothing conventionally pleasing about them? How do people get seduced by these dirty beauties?
Inscrutability is part of the genius of abstract expressionism, though it helps if the mystery is fortified by deeply-felt convictions. There is also a special fascination in imagining agonized adults going bonkers with paint, swept by a creative frenzy, as opposed to naughty children who are up to no good. In his later years, the Beat writer William Burroughs developed a technique of making abstract art by placing spray paint cans in front of blank canvasses, and then shooting at them with a shotgun. These resultant splatters and smudges were shown in a Chicago gallery in the late 1980s and a New York gallery in the early 1990s, though they never made into the canon of modern art in the way works by Pollock or Kline did.
Having fun is the privilege of many, but only the special few are possessed by the fury of art.
A fortnightly look at the world of art from close and afar.