Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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