When people look at abstract paintings and say, “My kid could do that,” they’re right—up to a point. Given the right materials and a little bit of coaching, any kid—or elephant or chimpanzee—can produce something that looks like art, or at least something that looks like Abstract Expressionism. In the 1950s, artists like de Kooning and Pollock proposed a radically new way of thinking about painting: as the direct trace of the artist’s physical engagement with the materials. Harold Rosenberg, the critic who first coined the term “action painting,” put it like this: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” The Ab-Exers were great formal innovators, but even more important than Pollock’s drips or de Kooning’s arabesques was their revolutionary insight that a painting can represent nothing other than the process of its own creation.
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