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

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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Every room in Tate Modern

Tate Modern, housed in the famous converted power station building on the South Bank near London Bridge, contains six levels. But as levels 0 and 1 are shops and cafes, and 5 and 6 are, respectively, the members’ level and restaurant, that leaves only 2, 3 and 4 to actually display art. Level 3 is given over to temporary exhibitions (currently Alexander Calder and The World Goes Pop) and some small, one-room displays (currently George Baselitz) – which leaves floors 2 and 4 to house the permanent collection.

Each level is divided into two wings, west and east, grouped around a broad theme and housing 10 or 11 rooms: thus level 2 west is Citizens and States, level 2 east is Making Traces; level 4 east is Energy and Process and level 4 west is Material Worlds.

So Tate Modern contains about 42 rooms, plus 3 or 4 one-room displays between each wing, say 46 in all.

Audio guide

The audio guide costs £4.25 (£3.75 for concessions eg students). It has audio commentary on a relatively small number of selected works. The woman selling it said it lasts 45 minutes but that can’t be true. My one had one or two minute-long items on 38 works, and half or more of the entries consisted of more than one track eg 90 seconds on the art work, with an additional quote from the artist, and then maybe some music (the Mark Rothko item has two pieces of music, one of which was five minutes long). Surely more than 45 mins – and very useful…

Personal highlights

As with my recent trips to the British MuseumNational Gallery and Tate Britain, the following are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note.

I used to think I knew about modern art, but this visit confirmed my feeling that I have been completely overtaken by the explosion of post-modern art since the 1980s. There has been a vast expansion in the numbers of artists and artworks and types and styles of practice over the last thirty years, as well as a massive expansion in the types of discourses available to make sense of new movements and artists from around the world.

Also there has been a significant movement to reconsider and revalue the past, especially as regards rediscovering or rehabilitating women artists – a process exemplified by the current The World Goes Pop exhibition, which is designed to promote hitherto little-known artists from around the world, and goes out of its way to foreground women artists and gender issues.

So this attempt to visit every room at Tate Modern felt like it shed a bit of new light on some old favourites and familiar faces, but mostly introduced me to new names. A lot of new names.

1. Citizens and States

  • Who doesn’t love Piet Mondrian? But I didn’t know he was a theosophist nor that the calm grids of black lines dividing rectangles of white or red or yellow or blue are representations of an ideal society. A psychologist was interviewed to say they’ve done experiments turning Mondrian squares onto the diagonal and people really don’t like them: there’s something powerful about horizontal and vertical lines, our brains react to them more deeply than to diagonals. Compare the impact, the pleasing sense of order and clarity in any Mondrian, with that of fellow De Stijl member Theo van Doesburg’s Counter-Composition VI (1925). Not nearly so pleasing.
  • Composition B (No.II) with Red 1935 The cool structured grids can be interpreted as a way of establishing order on a chaotic world. That aim reminded me of the images I saw recently in the British Museum, the wall paintings of Nebamun hunting and the friezes of king Ashurbanipal of Assyria’s lion hunt. In both, hunting is a way for aristocratic or royal man to establish order out of nature’s chaos and the painting re-enacts that function. Striking that the same impulse links painting from 800BC and 1940AD.
  • The movement he belonged to in Holland, de Stijl, is pronounced ‘dare stale’.
  • When Barbara Hepworth moved to Cornwall, ovals replaced circles in her work, which gave them two centres or focal points, instead of one, making them more complex and interesting. Oval Sculpture (No. 2) 1943, cast 1958
  • Tate had an exhibition of Hélio Oiticica back in 2007, which I was fool enough not to go to. The three abstracts by her here, from the 1950s, show not quite perfect geometric shapes jostling and balanced on plain backgrounds, creating a lovely impression of jazzy movement. Metaesquema 1958
  • Tate also had an exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair a few years ago, another show by a woman artist which I should have gone to. In room two I liked Composition with Two Ovals 1951. On the audio guide we hear her insisting her work comes from Islamic, not Western, sources of inspiration. A couple of her works were included in 2015’s Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitechapel art gallery last year, where I liked Poem (1965).
  • Joseph Beuys was one of the dour Germans who put me off contemporary art in the 1970s and 80s. There are not one but two whole rooms devoted to him at Tate Modern, mainly documenting his tireless activities as an educator, organiser of student events, giver of marathon interviews, supporter of alternative political parties, green enthusiast and so on. How tiresome all that 1970s student politics looks now; how ultimately futile. The main artwork is the massive Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958-85). The audio commentary usefully explained Beuys’s cryptic personal mythology: the metal sheet is the lightning, the ironing board is the stag, the clay lumps represent lumpish unintelligent creatures.
  • A lot more up to date, Theaster Gates’s Civil Tapestry 4 (2011) is a tapestry made of vertical strips taken from the fire hoses which were turned on civil rights protesters in the deep south of America in May 1963. Reminded me of Ai Weiwei’s enormous sculpture made of steel poles salvaged from the wreckage of schools destroyed in the Szichuan earthquake. A similar sense of unimpeachable righteousness.
  • Artur Zmijewski (b.1966) has made various films, including the one featured here, Democracies (2009), splicing together footage shot at a variety of political rallies in his native Poland, from feminist and environmentalist campaigners, to right-wing nationalist rallies. Watching the Catholic nationalist rallies, I recall political commentators interpreting last October’s election of the Law and Justice Party to government in Poland as a ‘lurch to the right’. Zmijewski’s film shows you why. It is an interesting documentary film but, like all film and video, I wonder about its relevance as ‘art’.
  • A room devoted to Latin American Photobooks, testament to the turmoil in Latin America throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, collected by British photographer Martin Parr.
  • I saw Richard Hamilton’s The Citizen (1981-3) in Tate Britain’s recent Fighting History exhibition. The audio commentary here made the neat point that the patterns the dirty protesters made with their own faeces on their prison walls echoed the patterns of Celtic designs – although what Celtic art is turns out to be hard to define, as the British Museum’s exhibition on Celtic Art and Identity showed. How genuinely subversive it would have been it Tate had bought an actual prison wall covered in IRA prisoner shit, and exhibited it, smell and all.
  • Sheba Chhachhi b.1958, was represented by Seven lives and a dream, photos inspired by the rape of an Indian woman in the 1970s, and other large b&w photos of Indian women.
  • Teresa Margolles (b.1963) is represented by Flag I, a big flag coloured with blood, earth and other matter from the murder sites of various people killed in Mexico’s bloody drug wars, a death rate which currently runs at around 20,000 a year.

Reflections on Citizens and States – ie the failure of radical politics

It is my belief that the forces for radical change have everywhere been comprehensively defeated and, in fact, that even moderately liberal bourgeois democracy is itself under attack from religious extremists at one end and home-grown nationalists at the other. Neo-liberal capitalism defeated and buried not only the communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe but the very idea of any kind of socialist / communist alternative.

The student radicalism of the Joseph Beuys rooms, and in evidence throughout the Pop Art exhibition from the heady 1960s, is irrelevant to the world of Putin, growing right-wing forces in eastern Europe, to the Refugee Crisis, to the permanent collapse of big parts of the Middle East and the state of terrorist threat which we are going to have to live with indefinitely.

The economic engine of the world, China, whose meteoric industrialisation has been underpinning rising standards of living throughout the West for the last generation, is coming stuttering to a halt. If you haven’t done well over the past twenty years, that was a one-off golden age and chances are you’re going to get a lot worse off in the coming era.

And underlying everything is evidence that man-made climate change is kicking in now, unchangeable and unavoidable, with unforeseeable but potentially cataclysmic consequences.

Against this backdrop it’s hard to avoid thinking that much of the art in this section is trivial or, at best, irrelevant. Nothing is going to stop Mexicans (or Colombians) murdering each other over drugs. President Nixon announced his nationwide War on Drugs as long ago as 1971: how’s that war progressing? Nothing is going to stop Indian men raping Indian women. Sheba Chhachhi’s photographs were sparked by rapes in the 1970s but gang rapes by Indian men have been in the news for the past few years. And Theaster Gates’s sentiments about historical injustices in the Alabama of the 1960s might be impeccably correct, but seem irrelevant in light of the ongoing inability of American police to stop their officers beating up and shooting dead a seemingly endless stream of unarmed black men.

Activists have been protesting these issues for decades and not only has nothing changed, lots of things have got worse. Considered as political activism, then, most of this art is a complete failure. Considered as art, it relies so much on the worthiness and impeccable liberalism of its credentials, that the failure of its causes in the real world makes it almost comical. Nice flag. Shame even more Mexicans will be murdered his year. Nice hoses. Shame even more black men will be shot by police.

It was a relief to emerge from the politically charged, fraught, upsetting and ultimately depressing Citizens and States wing and cross over to the less contentious Making Traces.

2. Making Traces

  • Magda Cordell (Hungary 1921-2008). Woman artist, her Figure (Woman) is, according to the wall label, ‘an image of heroic femininity’.
  • Korean woman artist Lee Bul’s Untitled (Craving White) (2011) is a gargoyle assembly of sacks of fabric, with wood and steel, twisted into weird shapes. She wore it to do performances, the weird bulges and squiggles intended to ‘deconstruct ideals of the female body’.
  • Avis Newman, woman artist born 1946, is represented by The Wing of the Wind of Madness (1982).
  • Lee Krasner, woman artist apparently overshadowed in her lifetime by her husband, Jackson Pollock, is now being rediscovered with works like Gothic Landscape (1961).
  • Woman artist Hilla Becher (1931-2007) spent most of her adult career travelling with husband Bernd around Europe and America taking series of b&w photos of industrial buildings eg Coal bunkers (1974). I wonder whether they inspired the b&w photos of abandoned nuclear bunkers and wartime defences by Jane and Louise Wilson?
  • Woman artist Hedda Sterne made lovely semi-abstracts, including NY No. X (1948).
  • Joan Miro is a big name from the modernist mid-century and represented here by the large and colourful Letter from a friend. After the post-modern works in the previous gallery, this type of Modernism looks reassuringly old-fashioned.
  • At the heart of this display is the big room showing Mark Rothko’s Seagram paintings (1958-60). Rothko was commissioned to decorate the restaurant in the new Seagram building in New York and was half way through making them when he went along to the restaurant himself, and was horrified to find it full of ‘rich bastards’, as he described them, eating dinner. What did he expect? He turned down the commission, returned the money and was contacted by various museums who wanted to buy them, of whom he favoured Tate because of a sentimental fondness for British art. He committed suicide the same day in 1970 that the paintings arrived in London. The audio guide plays Perilous Night by John Cage, favourite composer of so many modern artists. Of the 8 or so works here, my favourite was Red on Maroon, Mural Section 4 (1959).
  • By complete contrast, woman artist Rebecca Horn (b.1944) specialised in making strange imaginative extensions of the human body, for example Cockfeather Mask (1973). A room is devoted to her strange inspiring creations. A film shows cockfeather being used to do a sort of fan dance-cum-striptease over a man’s penis, a rare appearance of the male member in these galleries.
  • Simryn Gill (b.1959) has a whole room devoted to a series of large colour photos he took in the Malaysian town of Port Dickson, A Small Town at the Turn of the Century (1999–2000) showing its citizens in normal or portrait style poses but with large fruits concealing their faces. I liked number 5, number 34, number 24.
  • The American artist Mark Bradford (b.1961) is represented by Riding the cut vein, an entrancing large image, owing something to the street layout of Los Angeles where, according to the wall label, freeways cut through the city dividing rich neighbourhoods from poor ones.
  • The last room in this mind-bending tour of 20th century art is devoted to six massive paintings by Gerhard Richter (b.1932) Cage I-VI, named after the American composer and philosopher John Cage, ever-popular with the avant-garde. Prepared for them to be dirty smears, I was in fact entranced. There’s a film showing Richter at work using a metre-wide squeegee to smear the paint across the surfaces, which sounds unpromising, but the results are actually full of countless details, imperfections, unknown unnameable elements, insights and peculiarities. Close up.

3. Energy and Process

The wall labels explain that this suite of rooms is based around the 1960s Italian art movement, Arte povera, which used industrial by-products, or found materials, to create large, generally abstract sculptures. It was deliberately distinct from the grandiosely ‘heroic’ American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, but also different from the American Minimalism of the 1960s, which is smooth and cerebral. The main works are in the big, well-lit room 3:

  • Lynda Benglis Quartered meteor (1969) This woman artist’s lump of dull lead is a deliberate riposte to the smooth geometric shapes of American minimalism.
  • Kishio Suga’s Ren-Shiki-Tai
  • Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 Metres (1980–2)

According to the wall labels, Arte Povera ‘upset traditional ideas’ about how art should be distributed and displayed. Well, here they are being displayed in an international art gallery. Doesn’t seem to have upset or challenged that pretty traditional idea.

  • Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) was a groovy French woman artist whose website shows the full range of her colourful imaginative oeuvre and who is represented here by one of her ‘shooting paintings’. She filled bags with colour pigment, attached them to a canvas and covered the lot in white plaster, hung the canvas outside on a wall and then invited friends to shoot it with .22 rifles. The colour bags exploded and spurted colour over the work. Shooting Picture (1961)
  • Michael Baldwin is represented by a board with a mirror attached, Untitled Painting (1965). The commentary tells us with a straight face that this work is ‘questioning a long-held action of painting transcending reality’. OK.
  • In a similar radical, subversive, revolutionary etc vein is the anti-art tea tray of Július Koller (1939-2007), Question Mark b. (Anti-Painting, Anti-Text) 1969. Here it is in a major art gallery, subverting away like mad. Funny in its way, but also funny in its quaint utopianism.
  • Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) experimented with lots of slits in otherwise untouched canvas. Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ (1960).
  • In room ten is the rather marvellous motor engine covered in crystals of copper sulphate, known as Untitled 2006 by Roger Hiorns, born in 1975.
  • Nicholas Hlobo is a gay black man, born in 1975 in South Africa. I enjoyed the works where he’s used embroidery or sewing using pink ribbon onto canvas to create shapes and flows, although I was disappointed that the curators instantly say this work ‘challenges gender-based assumptions about the division of labour’. Does it? Really? Ikhonkco (2010)
  • A small room is devoted to Emilio Prini (b.1943), who took countless experimental b&w photos in the 60s and 70s. According to the label, ‘Throughout his career Emilio Prini was engaged intensively with photography and photographic processes.’ Not ‘experimented with photographic techniques’, but was engaged with… And not just engaged. Engaged intensively. Lots of photos of parts of his body.

In these rooms, as in various other exhibitions of 20th century art, you get a powerful feeling from the wall labels and commentary of the curators’ nostalgia and regret for an era when art really meant something, when it was part of wider social movements genuinely upsetting old traditions and assumptions.

Now, when there is more art and more artists than ever before, more women artists, more artists from around the world, working in every conceivable medium, all trying to establish a marketable brand which can be sold to Saudi oil and Russian mafia and Colombian drug lord investors, it is impossible to recapture the heady idealism of, in particular, the 1960s and early 70s.

These galleries reek not of revolutionary exhilaration, but of the mournful nostalgia for, and the comic over-excitement about, the truly ‘revolutionary’ art of a bygone era, on the part of a generation of curators and critics born too late to experience it.


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