Mark Tansey’s painting is centred in the postwar New York art world. “Action painting” is the name Harold Rosenberg attached to a style of painting carried out by the Abstract Expressionists, in particular Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Like many of Tansey’s works, which combine an eccentric view of geopolitical history with movements in art history, Action Painting II depicts anything but the gestural abstraction its title suggests. The main action in this work is the liftoff of a rocket, while the less dramatic actions are the strangely successful attempts by a cluster of painters – Sunday painters, men dressed in work clothes, young women, among others – to capture the event on canvas. Another dramatic feature of the composition is the insistent straight line of the flagpole flying the American flag at the left. Action Painting II can thus be seen as an allegory of American painting and the country’s conquest of space.