The term was coined by the American critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 and signaled a major shift in the aesthetic perspective of New York School painters and critics. According to Rosenberg the canvas was "an arena in which to act". While abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning had long been outspoken in their view of a painting as an arena within which to come to terms with the act of creation, earlier critics sympathetic to their cause, like Clement Greenberg, focused on their works' "objectness." To Greenberg, it was the physicality of the paintings' clotted and oil-caked surfaces that was the key to understanding them as documents of the artists' existential struggle.
Rosenberg's critique shifted the emphasis from the object to the struggle itself, with the finished painting being only the physical manifestation, a kind of residue, of the actual work of art, which was in the act or process of the painting's creation.
Over the next two decades, Rosenberg's redefinition of art as an act rather than an object, as a process rather than a product, was influential, and laid the foundation for a number of major art movements, from Happenings and Fluxus to Conceptual, Performance art, Installation art and Earth Art.
In an Aesthetic Realism Foundation study of Pollock's painting, Number One 1948, Lore Mariano shows how the aesthetic effect of this quintessential example of action painting arises from the way it is at once abandoned and accurate — that is, puts together the very opposites that "struggle" or are in conflict not only in the artist but in every individual.
The preceding art of Kandinsky and Mondrian, had freed itself from the portrayal of objects and instead tried to evoke, address and delineate through the aesthetic sense; emotions and feelings within the viewer. Action painting took this a step further, using both Jung and Freud’s ideas of the subconscious as its underlying foundations. The paintings of the Action painters were not meant to portray objects per se or even specific emotions. Instead they were meant to touch the observer deep in the subconscious mind, evoking a sense of the primeval and tapping the collective sense of an archetypal visual language. This was done by the artist painting "unconsciously," and spontaneously, creating a powerful arena of raw emotion and action, in the moment. Action painting was clearly influenced by the surrealist emphasis on automatism which (also) influenced by psychoanalysis claimed a more direct access to the subconscious mind. Important exponents of this concept of art making were the painters Joan Miró and André Masson. However the action painters took everything the surrealists had done a step further.
This spontaneous activity was the "action" of the painter, through arm and wrist movement, painterly gestures, brushstrokes, thrown paint, splashed, stained, scumbled and dripped. The painter would sometimes let the paint drip onto the canvas, while rhythmically dancing, or even standing in the canvas, sometimes letting the paint fall where the subconscious mind wills, thus letting the unconscious part of the psyche assert and express itself.
For example, in Jackson Pollock’s paintings one can feel the presence and the power of spontaneous energy let loose and made visible. Supposedly, when he created his paintings he would slip into a trance in which no conscious act was to manifest itself; although Pollock's masterful use of drawing, line and color belie that myth. However if he had the instinctive impulse to throw his cigarette into the picture, he would allow himself to do so trusting his superb instinct for making paintings.
The effect an action painter would like to convey to the viewer in a spontaneous painting is akin to observing someone smothering out their finished cigarette. In general that is an unconscious reflexive, natural act. Most of the time, a person will simply throw the butt to the ground without thinking of what is being done, and step on it. The action painters show this type of un-thought out, spontaneous, natural, reactive, unplanned action in their paintings.
All this, however, is difficult to explain or interpret because it is a supposed unconscious manifestation of the act of pure creation.