Monday, 26 September 2016

Abstract Expressionism - Royal Academy of Arts

Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955
Abstract Expressionism is at the Royal Academy until 2 January 2017.
It is hard, now, to imagine the impact of the exhibition New American Painting at the Tate Gallery in 1959 – it was the first significant showcase in this country of the work of the Abstract Expressionists. It must have been both exhilarating and bewildering: it received both admiration and derision. British abstract painters such as Basil Beattie and the late Albert Irvin have attested to its revelatory effect. Remarkably this is the first large scale survey of the movement since that exhibition more than 50 years ago. So this is very exciting!
(There have, of course, been recent major surveys of individuals such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko – but this is a wonderful opportunity to see the richly varied work of this school of artists all together and it includes some who have been little seen in the UK, for example, Joan Mitchell and Clyfford Still.)
The 1959 exhibition was organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York and toured to several locations in Europe. Although it was met with some scepticism – one French critic asked ‘Why do they think they are painters?’ (1) it helped to cement the reputations of the Abstract Expressionists and decisively established New York as the capital of modern art in place of Paris. Whether or not one takes seriously the promotion of this art movement as American state sponsored (CIA) propaganda and an instrument in the Cold War (the individualistic, advanced, abstract art was proposed as an emblem of freedom and democracy in telling contrast to the rigid, rule bound sterility of Socialist Realism) the scale and daring of Abstract Expressionism at its best can be truly thrilling.
All the major names are in the show – Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston – and more. Highlights include Pollock’s Mural (which I was lucky enough to see in Berlin earlier this year, see below) and Blue Poles – this painting generally gets a big thumbs up from critics (Laura Cumming: ‘magnificent’; Mark Hudson: ‘stunning’) yet in a filmed interview made for the OU in 1982 Clement Greenberg (the key critical voice supporting Pollock) says “Blue Poles was a failure – as Jackson himself recognised”. I am also looking forward to seeing Joan Mitchell’s work, since I can’t recall ever having seen any before, and Clyfford Still’s paintings. I knows Still’s work principally from a solitary (I think) example in the Tate and through reproductions – obviously this is not a good basis for judgement, yet I have always been rather dismissive of what looks to me as rather banal work lacking the subtlety, elegance or invention of his peers – yet he is written about with considerable respect and is substantially represented in this show. I look forward to forming a more considered judgement!
Read reviews by Waldemar Januszczak, Laura Cumming, Adrian Searle, Mark Hudson; read a feature article by John-Paul Stonnard.
(1) Erika Doss (2002) Twentieth Century American Art, OUP, p127
(2) Open University (1982) Greenberg on Pollock: Interviewed by T.J. Clark, OU/BBC
(Click on images to enlarge.)

Jackson Pollock, Male and Female, 1942-43
Arshile Gorky, Water of the Flowery Mill, 1944
David Smith, Star Cage, 1950
Willem de Kooning, Woman II, 1952
Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952 (detail)
Mark Rothko, Yellow Band, 1956
Willem de Kooning, ...Whose Name was Writ in Water, 1975
Joan Mitchell, Salut Tom, 1979
Installation view of works by Clyfford Still

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