Auction Highlight Spring 2011 Ernest Sidney Philpot

Lot 58 Ernest Sidney Philpot – Painting in Action

The term “Action Painting” was coined by New York art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 to describe certain works of art by key members of the New York school of abstract expressionism. Foremost amongst these artists was Jackson Pollock whose self-described “drip” paintings had been breaking new ground since about 1947.

What made these works so unique was their emphasis upon the act of process of painting rather than upon the actual work itself. They were not meant to portray objects or even emotions but by virtue of their seemingly unpremeditated creation, came to be regarded as representations of the artist’s subconscious.

Against both the critical and commercial grain of Australian art in the mid 1950’s, Earnest Philpot broke away from his established and strictly figurative style to introduce distinctly abstract imagery into his works. This rapidly transformed into his own particular style of abstract expressionism, which, in a bold move, he exhibited in London in 1960. Most of the works from this exhibition were described as “action paintings”[1]

In Painting in Action (1960) Philpot exhibits a lyrical and free-flowing style that brings to mind dance-like imagery of Pollock’s Summertime Number 9A (1948) and his monumental Number 1, 1952 (1952).[2] Like the abstract expressionists, Philpot was also looking for a sublime, unpremeditated outcome. Unlike Pollock and the New York school as a whole, however, Philpot sought not to express subconscious human thought but to somehow create a more universal image, an evocation of the very meaning and purpose of life. The cloud-like form bordered by the swirling, dancing lines in Painting in Action reflects his ineffable, almost spiritual objective.

Painting in Action is a dynamic, rhythmic work art. It’s evident technical precision does not detract art. He believed deeply in the emancipating power of abstract art – for him, it brought him closer to what he saw as a universal truth. The images he produced transcended their individual component materials and their aesthetic impact in their endeavour to explore and express something truly profound, not merely to record people, places or events. Philpot did not seek to mirror society but to actually guide it, most especially through contemplation of the abstract image, towards a deeper understanding of self and life.

As Philpot has so powerfully written, “Such in the raison d’etre of art, not to be a depicter of mini-truths but an imagiser of the Great Truth.”[1] In this context, especially, Painting in Action represents a singular step in Philpot’s almost career-long pursuit of truth and meaning, expressed through the medium of the painted image.



[1] Valerie, F. (2008). Earnest Philpot: I am the artist.

[2] Emmering, L. (2003). Pollock. Taschen.