Abstract Expressionism is one of the biggest art movements of the 20th Century so it’s no surprise that the Royal Academy’s juggernaut show in London is big box office.
It’s the first major exhibition of Abstract Expressionism in six decades – and with around 150 painting and sculptures from around the world, it’s an unmissable event.
From Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko to Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, this fantastic show fires on all cylinders. It’s a cultural blockbuster.
The Royal Academy show blazes across the walks of its galleries with all the freshness and vigour of Abstract Expressionism at its zenith in the late 1940s and 50s.
Abstract Expressionism was a term coined by the critic Robert Coates in 1946. He picked the name to acknowledge the emotional intensity of the art movement which drew on influences from earlier German Expressionism and European abstract art.
The description stuck. But at least Abstract Expressionism delivered exactly what it said on the tin – abstraction and a fearless intensity.
One of the biggest shocks of this exhibition is how varied the Abstract Expressionists were as a group of artists. The diversity of their backgrounds is perhaps responsible for the dazzling breadth of their work.
The Abstract Expressionists ranged from native New Yorkers and European immigrants to painters who hailed from the American West.
Arshile Gorky’s paintings reveal his European roots in Armenia and the influence of Cubism and Surrealism, but in his hands they’re given a new twist.
Jackson Pollock’s work draws on his American roots and his interest in native American art and its symbolism, captured perfectly in his sand paintings.
Rarely have I seen so many major Abstract Expressionist works in one place – and it’s a tribute to the show’s curators that they’ve assembled iconic works and paintings from more obscure collections around the globe.
Expect an intense emotional experience as you walk around the dozen gallery spaces which make up this show. The monumental paintings grab your attention from all sides.
One thing the Abstract Expressionist artists had in common was that they lived during an age of extremes, uncertainty and turmoil.
Their lives spanned some of the defining moments of the 20th Century – the Second World War, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War and the Cold War.
‘The Violent Mark’ is the apt title given to one of the many galleries in the exhibition. Another is simply called ‘Darkness Visible’.
Franz Kline’s huge black and white canvases and Robert Motherwell’s sombre paintings reflect the violent nature of the times in which they were created. The struggle of black people in the USA during this period is reflected in the lesser known but powerful works by Norman Lewis.
There are many surprises in this show including the large number of sculptures on display.
Normally we associate Abstract Expressionism with painting, but the 3-D sculptures are striking, sparse and bold.
Many of the works are by David Smith, a sculptor best known for creating large steel abstract pieces. I knew very little about Smith before but I’m now tempted to find out more.
The starkness of these works has a certain doom-laden feel. Perhaps it’s no surprise that – like many Abstract Expressionists, he died young at the height of his creative powers.
‘Jack the Dripper’
Jackson Pollock is the best known of all the Abstract Expressionists – known as ‘Jack the Dripper’ on account of his paint splashing technique.
In his day Pollock was described by art critics as “the greatest living painter – and for good reason. Sixty years on, his paintings remain powerful and almost primeval.
The daring free-styling of his painting is the visible equivalent of the jazz and punk revolutions in music… and it still resonates today.
Renowned for the dynamism of how he created these works, he was famous for laying raw canvases on the floor and pouring and dribbling paint to create labyrinthine patterns. There’s a fantastic rhythm to these works as they dance across the gallery walls.
Female artists and patrons
Female artists are given much more prominence in the RA exhibition than I’ve seen before. Artists such as the gifted Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell take centre stage alongside their male counterparts.
Lee Krasner’s remarkable The Eye is the First Circe reveals how she broke loose from the shadow of her husband Jackson Pollock. She takes the rhythmic style of her late husband and develops it further with its voids and vectors.
Painted after his death, it displays her talents as an Abstract Expressionist to match any of the male artists in the group.
Another woman, Peggy Guggenheim, was to have a huge impact on how the Abstract Expressionists were received during and after their lifetimes. This art collector and patron played a huge part in promoting the painters from this modern art movement.
It is perhaps fitting that one of the most stunning works on display at the Royal Academy is the huge mural that Guggenheim commissioned from Jackson Pollock. It was designed for her Manhattan townhouse in 1943, and became the largest canvas that Pollock would ever execute. It was also a major milestone in Abstract Expressionism.
The Dark Side
The stories behind the paintings are every bit as remarkable as the works themselves. Many of the Abstract Expressionist lived lives punctuated by emotional turmoil, not least Pollock and Rothko.
In the “age of anxiety” following the Second World War and the years of free jazz and Beat poetry, these artists broke from accepted conventions and lived close to the edge themselves.
Rothko talked of how his world explored powerful human emotions – “tragedy, ecstasy, doom”. His sublime rectangles of hovering colours are amongst my favourites.
A room of stunning Rothkos extending across one large galley is a highlight of the exhibition. The artist’s Untitled (Grey on Black) looms large with its sombre and brooding colour palette.
Several of the Abstract Expressionsts died young. It’s perhaps little surprise to learn that Rothko committed suicide in 1970 – and you can’t help thinking of his inner emotions as you stand in front of the works, feeling their emotional connection and power.
Jackson Pollock also died in a quasi-suicidal car crash on Long island in 1956. Arshile Gorky hanged himself, having reached an emotional breaking point in 1948.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom in this show. There are sublime works of the ‘colour field’ group of the Abstract Expressionists, the stars of which are Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. You can lose yourself in the blues and reds of their works, and the intense colours painted on their huge canvases.
The overpowering colours and hues fill your field of vision and engulf you in the evocative power of paint in its purest form.
Many people have been bowled over by Clyfford Still’s paintings in this show, which are less well-known in the UK than in North America. Having visited the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado, I’d already discovered that these paintings are something special.
Still was something of an outsider, a Westerner who had a deep realtionship with the ‘big skies’ and landscapes of Colorado. There’s a fabulous luminosity to these large-scale works.
‘Show of a lifetime’
The Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show has been described as “the exhibition of a lifetime” and it’s hard to disagree with the hype.
It’s one of the best curated exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time with an unparalleled collection of works by all the major artists from this group.
Most impressive is that many have been brought together for the first time. The show also acknowledges some of the lesser-known figures who contributed to the development of Abstract Expressionism.
Whilst I haven’t been totally converted to my least favourite Abstract Expressionist, Willem de Kooning (on account of his paintings of women), I was blown away by the whole show.
There are other surprises too – the photography and sculpture on display provide a very different perspective on Abstract Expressionism.
Best of all, the exhibition illustrates why New York took over from Paris as the capital of the art world in the 1940s and 50s.
This is one hell of a show – don’t miss out. The Abstract Expressionists’ paintings are truly sensational.
Tammy’s Mini-Guide – Abstract Expressionism
The Abstract Expressionism exhibition is at the Royal Academy in London until 2 January 2017. The nearest Tube stations are Piccadilly and Green Park.
The gallery is open daily from 10:00-18:00 with late opening on Friday nights. There is an admission charge of £19 for the show.
Look out for special events and lectures throughout November and December. There’s also a special music and Abstract Expressionism event on 9 December 2016.