Action Cinema

Action Cinema, the name is intended to evoke Action Painting. At risk of becoming a religion by the late 'Fifties, insouciant Cubism had been picked up on and developed by Depression and WW2-era artists but now, with onset of the Vietnam years and with lots of new money gathering into fortunes, it was to be hyped towards the market, to the point of taking on "spiritual" values, not from the drunken painters themselves but by writers often in direct employ of the galleries. It was soon joined by poster art, refreshingly blithe and requiring no study to appreciate. Here was the thinnest sort of impact art, splash backgrounds for fashion models. Stuntism prevailed, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, etc., while artists following in the steps of Action Painting (or The New York School or Abstract Expressionism) were called Second Generation and left out of the money. The galleries had product enough to unload without them.

Something more amusing and not posing problems for the viewer, blunt emblems of wealth for war profiteers, a cheeky modernism designed to capture attention and be talked about. The nude model as living paintbrush. Giant Brillo boxes, mass-produced Marilyns. Bypassed now by art students was protracted viewing of Cézanne, of Picasso, of deKooning. No more seeing how some seemingly accidental mark in a Kline might radically transform it, might even move the viewer to a new viewing angle on the entire composition. Composing towards re-positioning had been a conscious aim. The term Action Painter did not describe the painter painting, it referred to the canvas being activated. Pollack flung paint towards an enlivened painting, never as a stunt in itself. He saw the visual results and would pass or not pass on it. To an unknowing public this was crazy, mad genius stuff, and who's the crazy genius being discovered by the galleries now? Stuntism will prevail approximately as long as people can be sold on democracy under capitalism; the market for clever vacuity has little to worry about.

The still canvas was no such thing given minute observation. For the viewer willing to play the game the canvas was a rushing, slamming, restless monster. One had to give time to an inventory of detail, to see what each newly discovered detail did to the rest, and be up at any moment for a convulsive re-ordering of the entire canvas. Live with this! the painters challenged, a radical restlessness emblematic of the real new world of the 20th Century.
I had studied under Hans Hofmann. A bewildering teacher but so provocative and when film-making asserted the stronger pull the awarenesses and values he promoted in painting remained to consciously and unconsciously direct my moves. I still wake from sleep with my ideas. And so I dare to put the name Action Cinema to the knotty visual studies I produce.

Kline rode a wave, going at least back to Cubism, that promoted the painting as the event. What an actual scene might offer the painter as material for a work was now more important than any painterly depiction or comment about the scene. And, unlike what you hear about the flatness of these canvases and denial of depth, Hofmann only spoke of depth! Yes, the picture plane would be acknowledged at all times, illusionistic depth was verboten. The tense drama of painting, however, would be the play of implied depth on a clearly two-dimensional surface. Facts are facts. Meaning that a terrible sense of betrayal was brought on when my work plunged into both illusionistic depth and deep concern about the pictured subject. But illusionistic depth was available photographically, and in cinema, in a way it was not available to painting, and it was (Hofmann's use of the word) plastic in that as vision alone -illusion- it could be played with and made to perform in ways impossible to substantial reality. That was fun, and sanity-making in that it demonstrated the limits of human sense perception. Hubris is difficult to arrive at when you know your powers of perception are provisional and have everything to do with what sort of animal you happen to be.

Ken Jacobs

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