Who was the First Action Painter? Who Gave Pollock the Idea?
Jackson Pollock is one of the most recognisable artists of all time and widely credited with pioneering the concept of ‘action painting’, and making the process of producing an artwork a key feature of the art itself. But was he the first person to drip paint onto his canvas surface, rather than use a brush? Did this method of creating art just come to him in a stroke (excuse the pun) of genius? Well, as the title of this article eludes to, no he wasn’t. So who was the first action painter?
Janet Sobel is often credited with inventing the drip painting method between 1943-45, while David Alfaro Siqueiros is said to have dripped paint in his paintings; even demonstrating this to Pollock himself in 1936. Hans Hoffman (1940) and Max Ernst (1941) were two other early action painters.
If at least four artist are said to have incorporated some element of ‘action’ into their paintings, why is Jackson Pollock regarded as the pioneer of this artistic movement and technique? This becomes a little clearer when we examine the action painting origins of each of these predecessors.
Who were the early action painters?
Janet Sobel, a Russian-born housewife with five children whose first involvement with art was in her forties when she started fiddling with her son’s art supplies, is often credited with inventing the drip painting method sometime between 1943-1945. Others argue that David Alfaro Siqueiros was the first drip painter, having dripped paint in the foundations of his paintings – even demonstrating this technique to Jackson Pollock when he was a student, in 1936.
Hans Hoffman and Max Ernst were two other early action painters. Hoffman in 1940 finished off his painting Spring with a series of dripped swirls, while Ernst produced ‘oscillation’ paintings by piercing the base of a paint can and swing this over a canvas in 1941. While each of these artists incorporated some element of ‘action’ into their paintings, Jackson Pollock was the first artist to commit themselves fully to this one method of painting and to produce an entire body (or, more accurately, bodies) in this style.
Who was Janet Sobel?
Janet Sobel was born in 1893 in a part of the Russian Empire that is Dnipro in the Ukraine today. A housewife and mother of five children, she didn’t begin painting until around age 44 when she suddenly felt a creative urge and helped herself to her son’s art suppliers. Her first creations were folklore-style paintings with faces appearing across her canvases and a distinct amateur quality to them.
These eventually became looser and more expressive in style, until began drizzling her paint onto the canvas to create unorthodox shapes and effects. In one painting in 1943, Artists At A Preview, the hair and bodies of the three figures is made up of drizzled or poured paint; surely one of the very first paintings with ‘dripped’ characteristics.
From here, her style evolved further to producing fully abstract paintings with the drip method taking centre stage; 1946’s Milky Way is one such example, painted with a psychedelic, multi-coloured palette that must have appeared very ‘out there’ in the forties.
What else did sobel paint?
Significantly, Sobel is also credited with producing the first ‘all-over’ painting in 1946, Untitled, in which the canvas was evenly covered with drips and the artwork contained no recognisable composition. This all-over approach would also eventually become a trademark feature of Pollock’s work.
Despite being an early pioneer of drip painting and gaining some rapid recognition within the art world, Sobel never achieved lasting mainstream critical acclaim with her paintings. These were still viewed by many as amateurish, in what was a very male-dominated art world. Her chances of building a name for herself were further slashed in 1947 when her husband moved the family and herself from New York to New Jersey, cutting her off geographically from New York’s art ecosystem.
Pollock would eventually achieve widespread success and be heralded as the forerunner of both drip painting and all-over painting for his creations from 1947 onwards, barely two years after Sobel painted with the same technique.
Who was David Alfaro Siqueiros?
David Alfaro Siqueiros was a Mexican ‘social realism’ painter and muralist, and is argued by many to have been an even earlier predecessor to action painting than Sobel. He incorporated drips and pours into his paintings around decade earlier than Sobel and at least as early as 1936 when, invited to deliver a seminar to an audience of students at art college in New York that included a certain Jackson Pollock, he encouraged the young artists to use dripping and pouring to add energy to their work.
Siqueiros himself was said to use dripping only at the base layer stage of his paintings to develop the foundations of his images, which is why he finished paintings show no recognisable sign of action painting with them.
Other early action painting pioneers: Hoffman and Ernst
Hans Hoffman, in 1940, and Max Ernst, in 1941, are also said to have been among the first artists to have incorporated action into their method of painting. Hoffman finished his colourful 1940 painting, Spring, with a layer of white painted poured atop the surface. Meanwhile, Ernst experimented with his own style of transferring paint to a canvas by piercing the base of cans of paint and, while suspended, swinging these through the air above his painting surface.
While Hoffman and Ernst both incorporated action into their paintings, they didn’t stick with the drip method long enough to become associated with this particular style of painting.
Unlike his action painting predecessors – of which there may even be more – it was Jackson Pollock who undoubtedly brought drip painting to mainstream attention. Due to both the intensity with which Pollock committed himself to this style for this part of his career, and subsequently the sheer volume – and size – of the paintings he produced with the drip technique, Pollock built his reputation as being the first sole ‘action painter’. He also embodied this chaotic style of painting in his aggressive, rebellious and volatile attitude, further gaining him attention and notoriety.
Having become the first artist to produce entire bodies of action-painted work – and, importantly, also refining and mastering this style into an aesthetic his predecessors didn’t achieve along the way – Jackson Pollock undisputedly and deservedly gained the title of being the great action painter.
Which is your favourite drip painting by Jackson Pollock?
By Kerwin is my own range of handpainted, Jackson Pollock-inspired acrylic portraits. Having fused my own action painting technique with a pop art portrait style often likened to Andy Warhol, I have developed my own totally unique style of painting that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.