EXHIBITIONS: ‘Abstract Expressionism’
Royal Academy, London
This was the first exhibition to present an overview of Abstract Expressionism in Britain since 1959. It presented the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clifford Still, Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline and others in the huge rooms of the Royal Academy. It was indeed an awe-inspiring experience to see these paintings all together and one which I’ll never forget.
Abstract Expressionism emerged in New York in the 1930s and 1940s as the major movement of the twentieth century, Cubism, Surrealism, German Expressionism, Fauvism and Neo- Platicism, having run their course. Symbolism is possibly the best precursor to Abstract Expressionism as it considered that art that is deeply expressive of the emotions relies on colour and line to convey them. However all of these movements would have fed into the work of the emerging artists but what materialised was an entirely new phenomenon in American art. It was not a coherent movement and, certainly seeing the work of all of these artists all together, one was struck by the diversity. There are the ‘gesture painters’ and the ‘colour field’ exponents but within these there is certainly no clear delineation. Unlike the Surrealists or Futurists there was no manifesto for Abstract Expressionism. Also the artists came from different parts of America, with de Kooning born in Rotterdam, Gorky from Armenia and Rothko from Russia. Yet there were common themes such as an interest in myth and the sublime, a search for abstraction, the emphasis on large scale.
As I stood in the great room surrounded on all sides with the paintings of Jackson Pollock and catching glimpses through the openings of Willem de Kooning’s work and Rothko and Still, it was impossible not to feel that you were in the presence of something magnificent. Not that the work seemed strident, aggressive or overpowering, in fact in many cases there was a gentleness and an invitation to ‘enter in’ to the silence of the work. Although huge, the paintings remained accessible and somehow in the same dimension as the individual.
I was already a fan of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, having seen exhibitions of their work some years ago and it was great to see the work again. But it was the work of Clifford Still and Joan Mitchell which made the exhibition memorable for me. I hadn’t seen Still’s painting before and the room containing his work proved to be the highlight of the exhibition. The emphasis is on the vertical which lends a magnificence to the work and this together with the vibrant colour was truly inspiring. In the autumn RA magazine, Christopher Le Brun writes about Still: “His work constitutes an extreme of romanticism, possessing a nobility of purpose, dismissive of irony, quotation and the whole apparatus of art appreciation…Still cherished the central truth of painting as a bodily act and experience rather than an idea…There is a reason these paintings are big… They are to be felt, walked in front of, glimpsed, stared at, dwelt with…”
Joan Mitchell’s painting in contrast is fast, turbulent and full of movement. The colours are strong and clear and the mark making conveys such confidence, anger perhaps and certainly unforgettable. She was operating in a man’s world but there is no sense of intimidation in this work. Her complete expression of abstraction may seem at first to be without direction but I felt it would be a mistake to dismiss her painting with this. The fast moving freedom of the expressive lines maintained a strong sense of composition and purpose.
It was interesting for me to have seen this exhibition having just finished reading about the emergence of abstraction in Russia in ‘The Russian Experiment in Art” 1863 – 1922. During that period of 50 years there was a flourishing of creative energy as the artists searched to find a voice which expressed the needs of the age. It is evident as well, as we read about the emergence of art movements, of the influence which artists have on each other while yet still retaining their individuality and diversity. This has been an important point for me to understand as I struggle with the idea of contexturalisation in my own work.