Commentary Magazine

Action Painting

To the Editor:

This is just to correct a few errors of fact and terminology in the references to me in Daniel Bell’s “Sensibility in the 60′s” [June]. Perhaps on another occasion I shall comment on Mr. Bell’s general thesis.

The quotation from my remarks on Robert Morris should read: “Aesthetic withdrawal . . . legitimizes ‘process’ art . . . and random art whose form and content are decided by chance” (not “divided by chance”).

In the next paragraph Mr. Bell says that “A decade after his initial—and, at the time, approving—explication of ‘gestural’ or ‘process’ art Rosenberg was now clearly a shade unhappy at the strident stage which this tendency had reached.” “The American Action Painters,” to which Mr. Bell refers, and from which he quotes, was published in Art News in 1951 or 1952, that is, about two decades (not a decade) before my observations on Morris. The “sensibility” of the action painters dominated the art of the 50′s. But Mr. Bell’s references, both in quoting from my essay and in speaking of a decade, make it seem as if these artists and my description of them first appeared in the 60′s. Since he is writing about “the 60′s” as distinct from the 50′s this apparently trivial, and no doubt unintentional, mistake becomes crucial.

“The American Action Painters” was not “an explication of ‘gestural’ or ‘process’ art,” which did not exist in 1952. My essay formulated the idea of action painting which is based on an entirely different principle from either gesture or process. The first chapter of my new book Act and the Actor is devoted to the distinction between action and process. Action has to do with decision and self-affirmation or self-creation, while process operates of itself, as in the examples of process art cited by Dr. Bell. (Though I used the word “gesture” in regard to the action painters I prefer the term “action” because it implies a concrete content, where-as “gesture” may be empty or symbolic.) The point is that the action painters opposed various types of determinism which had been prevalent in American painting and should not be amalgamated with determinists such as the process artists.

Harold Rosenberg
Chicago, Illinois



Daniel Bell writes:

1) I regret the error in transcription which substituted “divided” for “decided.”

2) I knew that Mr. Rosenberg had first published his essay in Art News in the early 50′s and the manuscript from which the essay was taken makes the original context clear in the footnotes. The COMMENTARY article did not carry citations and other scholarly paraphernalia.

But Mr. Rosenberg reprinted his essay in 1959 in The Tradition of the New and curiously makes no mention of the original date of publication, though the essay itself carries extended footnotes from other of his articles in 1958 and 1959 which elaborated his argument. His own inadvertence, certainly, will make it difficult for a future, unwary critic to date Mr. Rosenberg’s point of view.

In any event, it is clear from the context that I was not using the “action painters” as part of the sensibility of the 60′s but as a baseline. I would even assume that Mr. Rosenberg’s act of publishing his essays as a book in 1959—and he surely is aware of the nature of a public act—was part of the effort to establish action painting as the threshold of the new developments.

3) But to come to the one question of substance: Mr. Rosenberg argues that action painting is different from gestural art, even though he has several times approvingly used the idea of the gesture. (“The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value—political, aesthetic, moral.”) The problem is one of standpoint. From a Moslem point of view, all Christians are alike, whatever the doctrinal differences among the warring sects. My argument was that action painting—which Mr. Rosenberg himself made explicit—had begun the destruction of the art object, and that the painters who followed in the 1960′s almost completed that task. I think that Mr. Rosenberg’s own essays, originally in Art News and subsequently in the New Yorker, make that progression—or degeneration—abundantly clear.

My overall argument dealt with a change in sensibility which had rejected the idea of objective value, and it is within that context, and from that standpoint, that I traced the relation between action painting and its successors. I await with interest Mr. Rosenberg’s comment on the general thesis.



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