Comparing Color Field & Action Painting

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher MuscatoChris has a master’s degree in history and teaches courses on both Mexican and American history.

American art after World War II saw some great innovations, both in terms of painting techniques and goals. Explore two major movements, and test your understanding of their similarities and differences with a brief quiz.

Modern Abstract Art

We’ve all heard people say this when they look at modern art, ‘My five year old could do that.’ Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but no they couldn’t. Unless your five year old is some kind of super-toddler, in which case, seriously capitalize on that. The art world could use a child prodigy to shake things up a bit. Anyway, my point is that modern art is about so much more than what meets the eye. Actually, it’s only about what meets the eye. But that makes it more than what meets the eye. See how complex this is? Let’s see your super-toddler handle this.

Color Field

After WWII, America became the world leader in innovative artistic styles, and several movements of abstract art appeared. One of them was Color Field, a term created by the art critic Clement Greenburg in the late 1940s. Color Field art is characterized by wide, flat planes of color in which the color is the subject. Some painters argue that it’s not actually abstract art, since the color does not represent anything else. It’s just color. Color Field paintings are created carefully and with a good amount of planning, since the effectiveness of the piece is based on the way that the various planes of colors interact. The overall effect is a painting that is calm, cool and rational.

Now, let’s study a Color Field painting and find out what makes Color Field so interesting. This painting is by Mark Rothko, who was one of the great Color Field painters, although he didn’t like the term. People who see Rothko’s work in person are often noted to break into tears. Why? Is it because they paid 12 bucks for great art and ended up just looking at flat color? Absolutely not. The entire goal of Color Field painting is to create an image of pure emotion. There are no distracting figures or symbolism; it is color for the sake of appealing to a subconscious, primeval level of emotion. The colors are not random, nor is their arrangement. Different assortments of colors are meant to evoke different emotions.

Action Painting

Okay, super-toddler, now’s your chance to really shine because we’re moving into another style of abstract art – action painting!

Action painting was one of the movements to emerge around the same time as Color Field painting, and while the two styles are related, they are also pretty different. While Color Field was all about the rational, calm and planned composition, Action painting is all about the physical act of painting. The artist does not plan out the composition, but instead dribbles, splashes or flings paint onto the canvas. This is a very physical process that can involve spinning and jumping and all sorts of movements, so the act of creating the painting is actually considered to be just as important as the finished product.