Research point: The Abstract Expressionists and Action Painting (Tachism)

Updated on 25 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and some content).

8 January 2017. One should never try and guess at the meaning of a word from what you think you know. “Tachism” (French: tachisme) to me appeared obvious, derived from the Greek word for speed, tachos. But not so, the word comes from the French for stain, tache. It is similar to action painting and considered to be more or less synonymous with the Informel, a more intuitive, gesture-centred counter movement to the geometrical analysis of colour and shape as celebrated by e.g. Josef Albers (1888-1976, Germany/USA) and is the 1940/1950s European equivalent to Abstract Expressionism developed in the USA. In contrast to the latter its proponents were somewhat less aggressive and spontaneous in the use of paint (Tate, n.d.(a), Collins, n.d.(a)).
The term “Tachisme” was originally coined much earlier by art critics to describe a number of different approaches to using paint in a “blotchy” way, including Impressionism, while the movement itself developed into one of the largest in Post World War II Europe and comprises works or art “without predefined form or structure”. Mark-making includes everything from any sort of coincidental splotch to calligraphic elements, often directly from the tube (Collins, n.d.(a)). Many contributing artists were either French and/or based in France. Among the most influential artists of the 20th century was Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985, France), co-founder of the Art Brut movement. He is quoted to have said:”Personally, I believe very much in values of savagery; I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness.” (Collins, n.d.(b)), which to me appears to be at the centre of tachism, i.e. to capture the essence of being in the moment. Most well known Dubuffet became for his rough, provocative graffiti-like paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, e.g. “Grand Maitre of the Outsider” painted in 1947 (Wikiart, n.d.). Gestural painter Hans Hartung (1904-1989, Germany/France, (Tate, n.d. (b))) appears to have interpreted Tachism with a more subtle, delicate and sketchlike brushstroke (Artnet, n.d.; Setareh Gallery, n.d.), and a video showing his gestural approach (Ophanin, 2014). Georges Mathieu (1921-2012, France, (Collins, n.d.(c))) is known for his “spiky, calligraphic style”, which in some way appears related to that of Hartung’s, but its effects (and those of image cultivation, see a video (Warin and Batton, 1965)) greatly increased to quasi Baroque dimensions, in a style described as Lyrical Abstraction. Patrick Heron (1920-1999, UK), on the other hand, was influenced by colour field painting in the style of Mark Rothko and is outstanding in his ingenious use of vivid colour and sensitive compositions including abstract shapes derived from nature (Collins, n.d.(d)).
Franz Kline (1910-1962, USA) and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, USA, (The Art Story, n.d.(b))) were two preeminent representatives of American Abstract Expressionism. The former trained as a graphical artist and illustrator and his abstract graphical black and white images are considered to be action painting in its purest sense ((The Art Story, n.d.(a))). His technique can be watched in a video here (The Museum of Modern Art, 2010): Kline preferred to use cheap brands of house paint, because their non-art qualities, including the low viscosity, bore a great attraction for him. Action painting as a record of the artist’s movements in time and space is of course present also in the work of Jackson Pollock. The sheer complexity makes the history of mark-making however hardly traceable in any one of his giant size drip and splatter paintings (The Art Story, n.d.(b).
Abstract expressionist has been at the centre of interest ever since its first appearance and the list of artists now working in an abstract expressionist or offshoot way is endless (Pinterest, n.d.). A great number of painters working now have developed the original idea further and combined it with or replaced it by the new techniques offered by the modern media.


Artnet (n.d.) Hans Hartung [image collection] [online]. Artnet, Berlin. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(a)) Tachisme [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(b)) Jean Dubuffet [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(c)) Georges Mathieu [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(d)) Patrick Heron [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Ophanin, M. (2014) Radio Palettes – Hans Hartung [online]. Mathieu Ophanin. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Pinterest (n.d.) Abstrakter Expressionismus [image collection] [online]. Pinterest. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Setareh Gallery (n.d.) Hans Hartung. Painting – Gesture – Liberation [image collection] [online]. Setareh Gallery, Düsseldorf. Available at:—hans-hartung-.-malerei—geste—befreiung.html [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Tate (n.d.(a)) Tachisme [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Tate (n.d.(b)) Hans Hartung [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.(a)) Franz Kline [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.(b)) Jackson Pollock [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

The Museum of Modern Art (2010) The Painting Techniques of Franz Kline [online]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Warin, F. and Batton, J. (1965) Le “Cas” Mathieu [online]. British Pathé. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Wikiart (n.d.) Jean Dubuffet: Grand Maitre of the Outsider [online]. Wikiart. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]


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