Abstract Expressionism @ The Royal Academy

Abstract Expressionism

The term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was coined by the art critic Robert Coates in 1946 to describe a large group of American artists who came to maturity just after the Second World War, mostly based in New York City. In 1958 New York’s Museum of Modern Art organised a big show of ‘the New American Painting’ which featured a lot of these artists, and the show travelled to Europe, appearing at the Tate Gallery in 1959.

This is the first large scale overview exhibition of the Abstract Expressionists since then, and it is an epic, awesome experience. As the commentary points out early on, the Royal Academy not has the space in terms of number of rooms to cope with this many artists, but also the size of rooms to accommodate works which are often very, very big.

The Eye is the First Circle by Lee Krasner (1960) Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016.

The Eye is the First Circle by Lee Krasner (1960) Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016.

The century of catastrophe

Born in the first decade of the century, these artists grew to maturity during the Great Depression and lived through the rise of Fascism, the Second World War, the revelation of the Holocaust, the detonation of the first atomic bombs and the beginning of the Cold War.

They almost all held a very intense tragic view of life, indeed the forerunner Ashile Gorky hanged himself in 1948 and the superstar of the movement, Jackson Pollock, died aged 44 in a car crash which many thought a form of suicide. The often stark, huge, bleak images address what one of the movement’s stars, Mark Rothko, summed up as the proper subject of Art – ‘ecstasy, tragedy, doom’. This was what the poet Auden christened ‘The Age of Anxiety’, life in the shadow of a rapid arms race and deepening Cold War.

Improvised or composed?

The commentary brings out the new freedom and expressiveness the painters felt and revelled in, and the emphasis on the artist’s gestures and physical actions, epitomised by Jackson Pollock twisting and splatting paint on the canvas, a necessarily big canvas. All this is a world away from the fine gestures at the wrist or fingertips which characterised traditional paintwork.

Some critics compared this big-gesture, expressive freedom with contemporary developments in modern jazz, the new style of be-bop or post-bop which provided a backdrop for flamboyant soloists like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane to fly off in ever-giddier flights of fancy. And, of course, like Abstract Expressionism, jazz was an entirely American form. To demonstrate, the audio-guide plays a clip from John Coltrane’s 1960 track Giant Steps.

Maybe. But:

1. Most jazz is in fact strongly bound by rules of harmony, rhythm, counterpoint etc which are all entirely European in origin. If you need a musical comparison, I’d compare these paintings to the stark,violent, unpredictable musical gestures of the post-war serialists, led by the two iconoclasts, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

Figures-Doubles-Prismes by Pierre Boulez (1964/68)

2. If anything, the detailed analysis which the audio-commentary applies to about 14 key paintings tends to contradict this idea of wild improvisation. The reverse: the commentary spends some time detailing the care with which Pollock composed his late masterpieces – and when you get close to a huge work like Blue Poles you can in fact see the way successive layers of composition have been applied: first the grey background; then a maze of yellows and whites; then the poles, made by applying a plank lined with dark blue paint to create the work’s eight lines, poles which create an eerie, primitive, tribal sense of rhythm; and then a further layer of paint, particularly white paint, which laces and binds the poles into the composition. The more you look, the more complex it appears, and one of the joys of this exhibition is that you can get very close to the works and really appreciate the intricacy of detail.

Blue poles by Jackson Pollock (1952 ) Oil, enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Blue poles by Jackson Pollock (1952 ) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Same goes for the half dozen Franz Kline works. These look at first glance like instant if graceful, daubs, epitomising the phrase ‘Action Painting’, which was also applied to these artists. But once again the commentary helps you see that Klein made the big black gestures on white but then went back and carefully painted white over some of the black, to make the gesture sharper, and then repainted more black over some of the white, each time intensifying the image.

Vawdavitch by Franz Kline (1955) Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016. Photo: Joe Ziolkowski

Vawdavitch by Franz Kline (1955) Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016. Photo: Joe Ziolkowski

All-American art

Abstract Expressionism was the first wholly American art movement and there was no shortage at the time, and since, of art critics prepared to champion it and write at great length about it. America had emerged from the war the new world power and the deep anxiety of the intellectuals was accompanied, paradoxically, by an extraordinary boom in the economy, the birth of a consumer society which brought security, wealth and a host of life-enhancing appliances (fridge, hoover, TV) to this vast thrusting nation. The art market boomed, critics rose to prominence, the artists made big names and careers for themselves.

The Big Four

Early on the audioguide points out that although around 30 mostly New York-based artists are associated with Abstract Expressionism, there are four who stand head and shoulders above the others: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Willem de Kooning. Accordingly, each one has a room devoted to themselves, while most of the other painters have to share hanging space.

Among the ‘sharers’, I liked Ad Reinhardt’s black squares. The commentary explained how a) they are in fact built up from other colours, which Reinhardt b) then used a technique on to drain the gloss or shine from, thus creating his very distinctively light-absorbing works, matt beyond matt. Reinhardt was an intensely earnest German, convinced that painting needed to be ‘purified of all other-than-art meanings’ and his quest led him to this logical conclusion.

Women artists

All this emphasis on ‘Action Painting’ and ‘Tragic Suffering’ went hand-in-hand with a Hemingwayesque tough guy pose among many of the painters, and certainly among their critical devotees. But the commentary emphasised that the movement not only included a number of women but that the male artists themselves respected their female peers, and many of them featured as complete equals in contemporary exhibitions. These included:

  • Lee Krasner, Pollock’s partner (see The Eye is the First Circle, above)
  • Janet Sobel, known for her ‘calligraphic fields’, much more controlled and interlaced (and smaller) works than many of the others
  • Joan Mitchell, who moved to France – her massive late painting Salut Tom, was a welcome splash of light yellow airy colour among a generally dark palette
  • Louise Nevelson was represented by a striking wall-sized installation made up of a kind of cabinet of curiosities with all sorts of odd-shaped shelves and objects inserted, displayed and hanging from it, all sprayed the quintessential colour of the movement, matt black – Sky Cathedral

Anti-Europe

Size mattered. A lot of these Yanks disliked the prissiness and fussiness and bourgeois finish of European painting. For example Pollock made a point of using normal household paint, as did Kline – real men didn’t use those prissy little tubes you have to buy in ‘art’ shops, Hell no. And why paint small, when you can paint BIG? Or MASSIVE? Room after room features enormous canvases. They had to be big to bear the Sweeping Gestures and Archetypal Forms and Primitivist Impulses of a generation determined to stamp their Tragic Worldview on an uncaring world, to make the Great American Painting, bigger and better than anything effete and devastated post-war Europe could manage.

Although a lot of the artists seem to have been depressive and liberal with statements about Tragedy and Despair, in fact the physical impact of room after room is of the sheer SIZE and brashness and confidence of the movement as a whole.

Mark Rothko

The anti-European feeling took many forms. The room devoted to Mark Rothko is wonderful, a shrine, a chapel to sit in and be filled with wonder, and admire the numerous ways Rothko reworked his trademark image, big canvases (naturally) with rectangles of colour fizzing and shimmering against a one-colour backdrop.

But it is also fascinating to learn that Rothko insisted that his paintings of must a) have no frames b) have no glass over them c) be hung low – the aim being to make them more enterable.

No. 15 Mark Rothko (1957) Private collection, New York © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.

No. 15 Mark Rothko (1957) Private collection, New York © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.

Clyfford Still

The big revelation of the show for me was the work of Clyfford Still, who I’m not conscious of having seen before. The commentary explained that Still resisted the New York art scene and stayed far away, based in Colorado and the West, and – crucially – only sold a handful of paintings in his lifetime, gifting 95% of his output to a purpose-built gallery in Denver where they are to this day. Hence we haven’t seen much of it.

The Still room, along with the Rothko room, made the biggest impact on me: the paintings are enormous, wall-size, and – liberated from all figurativeness – explore the effect of great jagged slabs of colour, often divided into two main tones but with flashes and flickers of other primary colours flaring at unexpected but somehow, totally appropriate locations. Almost all the ten or so huge paintings in his room felt, despite their deliberate rough edges and unfinished appearance, somehow marvellously composed and just right. Like Rothko and Pollock, he seems to have found a completely new visual language.

PH-950 by Clyfford Still (1950) Clyfford Still Museum, Denver © City and County of Denver / DACS 2016. Photo courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO.

PH-950 by Clyfford Still (1950) Clyfford Still Museum, Denver © City and County of Denver / DACS 2016. Photo courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO.

de Kooning

It’s not all fabulous. A fair proportion of the works here are pretty horrible. If the show highlights geniuses like Pollock, Rothko, Still and features attractive work by many others, it also shows how yukky, dismal and depressing a lot of the art of this period and of this movement could be.

I reacted very badly to the de Kooning room, which featured among others several of his ‘Women’ paintings’, to which phrases like ‘horror of the feminine’ were attached in the commentary. De Kooning was born in Holland, only moving to America when he was 23, and I think you can see in the horrible women paintings the strong influence of early 20th century European Expressionism, all those angst-ridden Germans sensing the advent of the Great War. De Kooning’s canvases are big alright, and very free with their paint strokes – but for me he doesn’t achieve the genuine breakthrough into an entirely new confident, achieved visual language which Pollock, Rothko and Still so obviously do.

Woman II by Willem De Kooning (1952) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, 1995 © 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016 Digital image © 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

Woman II by Willem De Kooning (1952) The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016
Digital image © 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

David Smith

David Smith seems to have been the only major sculptor associated with the movement and the curators have very cannily placed one of his sculptures in almost every room or at turning points between rooms, with four big pieces dominating the Academy courtyard outside.

They are too diverse to effectively sum up, but the example below gives a feel for the way they make no attempt at figurative depiction, but use different tricks and approaches to explore the space which they create around themselves.

Star Cage by David Smith (1950) Painted and brushed steel. Lent by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The John Rood Sculpture Collection. © Estate of David Smith/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016.

Star Cage by David Smith (1950) Painted and brushed steel. Lent by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The John Rood Sculpture Collection. © Estate of David Smith/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016.

This is a massive, awe-inspiring exhibition, which allows you to wander around encountering masterpiece after masterpiece, working out for yourself how new avenues in painting were opened up, new visual possibilities explored, and deciding what works for you and why. Liberating and exciting.

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