Abstract Expressionism at the RA

Abstract Expressionism at The Royal Academy is an ambitious show by any measure. It is the first of its kind in the UK for over half a century to examine this expansive movement and successfully attempts to transcend many of the long held assumptions about the aims of the artists and nature of their work. The exhibition runs from the 24th of September to the 2nd of January 2017 and brings together over 150 of the most significant artworks by well known artists like Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, Clifford Still and Barnett Newman, as well as those less familiar, in order to tell the story in depth. This again is no mean feat because these are among the most important paintings of the 20th century and just getting them in one place is an achievement in itself.

The group who became known as ‘Abstract Expressionists’ had much in common, even if their works actually ended up looking very different. All shared a desire to express, through varied abstract form, the inner terrain of the artist. To push abstract art as far as possible. They emerged after the Second World War in a United States coming to terms with its new position as the predominant global power. The moniker, coined by the Critic Robert Coates in 1946 and by which they would be forever known- like so many in art- can only superficially describe the full extent of their activities. However, the results of their working would go on to influence artists all over the world, forever changing the nature of painting and our conception of it.

Abstract Expressionism has generally been seen as an East Coast phenomenon; fed by an influx of European avant-garde artists and intellectuals, fleeing the Second World War. But as this exhibition seeks to prove, there was so much more to the movement. On the other side of the US, artists were producing equally innovative work. And eventually, the developments that were made by the group, permeated back over the Atlantic to inform a new generation of artists.

The movement achieved great success very early on thanks to a number of factors. But it’s interesting to consider that whatever the reasons for this, these were very individual and complicated artists who could hardly be described as your ‘ Average American’. Formed and tempered by the Depression and New Deal, several had radical and Left wing political views that wouldn’t exactly have fitted nicely into the prevailing Macarthyite worldview. The truth is that they were outsiders from mainstream society.

In 1958, ‘The New American Painting’ exhibition brought together the work of the Abstract Expressionists and took it from the lofts and galleries where it was seen by a relative few, on a tour of the great art cities of Europe. Jackson Pollock was on the cover of ‘Life’ Magazine and the feature inside did a great deal to place him in the public imagination as a new kind of ‘American’ artist. Part Brando, part Hemingway, ‘Jack The Dripper’ suddenly found himself an art celebrity at the head of a new and dynamic art movement.

The curators of the exhibition have successfully grouped the work so as to present the coherent evolution of the movement. So we start in Room 1 with an ‘Introduction and Early Work’. Some rooms explore just one or two artists. Pollock has Room 3, whilst Rothko has Room 7. But Room 5 for example explores ‘The Violent Mark’. Or in Room 4 ‘Gesture As Colour’. Both major preoccupations of the Abstract Expressionists. In Room 9, we consider existential themes in ‘Darkness Visible’.

All in all, the 12 rooms of the exhibition brilliantly present the genesis, evolution and culmination of the movement. The RA also managed to distribute the art evenly, giving each adequate ‘room to breathe’. The lighting was muted, which was probably to safeguard the priceless works on display. However, to my eyes (probably need new glasses) it was sometimes difficult to make
out details.

Jackson Pollock's ‘Mural’ from 1943 dominates the show. With this picture, he was beginning the process of removing the signs and symbols that had been a central part of his earlier work, which had shown the influence of Picasso. Some time later, Pollock said something about it's inspiration. That he had a vision: “It was a stampede…(of) every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface.” Anecdotal perhaps, but evocative of the way the rhythmic marks lead the eye across the painting.

The scale of ‘Mural’ demonstrated Pollock’s audacity in wanting to make a bold visual statement, as well as his attempt to shift the focus of painting towards a uniform coverage: filling the entire picture plane, so that no specific area was any more or less important and thereby moving it’s emphasis away from traditional concepts of foreground, mid-ground and background. A significant development in terms of advancing beyond linear perspective, which had been a recurring preoccupation of Modern Art.

Equally important, Pollock was developing a gestural, lyrical style of painting that moved beyond conventional brushwork; requiring him to utilise sticks and a mixture of household and industrial paints, in preference to traditional artists’ materials. By an impasto ‘layering’ process, he was able to build up intense, complex surfaces. He called this ‘Action Painting’ and it was a technique developed from a number of sources. I think he learned something from Oriental Calligraphy in terms of ‘gesture’, as well as artists like Miro, Masson and the ‘Automatist’ school of Surrealist painting.

Pollock gradually refined this process of paint application which enabled him to achieve an unprecedented degree of lyrical expression. By thinning the paint and allowing it to drip from the end of a stick, a brush or by pouring it from a can on to the surface, he was able to create complex and delicate structures that reflected patterns found in nature. Like Andre Masson, but to a greater extent, this technique allowed him to incorporate the element of chance into the process.

By letting the paint act in accordance with its natural physical inclinations (when applied to the canvas surface) and than hanging it up dry, Pollocks’ work undermined another powerful assumption at the heart of western pictorial tradition. The notion that paint should create the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. This idea was one of the basic tenants of modern painting, seen as an inevitable development, according to the critic and Abstract Expressionism’s leading theorist, Clement Greenberg. Many artists had challenged the idea before, but they all still painted using conventional methods of application. Pollock abandoned both, in favour of an exploration of the two dimensional picture surface, one could almost say by ‘guiding’ the paint on to it. Utilising it’s unpredictable nature in counterpoint to his own gestural dexterity. Thus, he ushered in a whole new territory for artists to traverse.

From the mid 40s, Pollock explored and developed his new approach to painting, which become ever more intricate, layered and refined. He aimed at something vigorous and one could argue, more in touch with elemental forces of nature and the cosmos. He would lay out his canvases on the ground, often outside, in order to work on them, echoing Navaho Sand Art. Moving away from general European conventions about easel painting, and in keeping with the notion that the artist should be a ‘part’ of the image, rather than looking through a ‘window’. That also meant that there could be no generalised ‘up’ or ‘down’, left or right. The artist would decide the picture’s orientation (it wouldn’t be enforced by the arbitrary position of the easel). That the very making would determine the outcome of a work of art in a new and more spontaneous way. Another consequence was that the act of Painting itself would become more a physical and intuitive activity, rather than a static, contemplative pursuit. In this exhibition, opposite ‘Mural’; we see ‘Blue Poles’ and the Tate’s ‘Summertime’ that take these tendencies to a logical conclusion.

‘Blue Poles’ (Number 11) from 1952, illustrates just how innovative Pollock’s work had become by the early fifties in terms of composition. The ‘poles’ that sit on the surface of the painting, simultaneously divide the picture plane to create a visual rhythm and act to enliven and contrast the complex lyrical painting underneath. It is interesting to consider the role colour plays in this work. Pollock uses quite pure, almost ‘tasteful’ colours that often remain distinct from each other. But mixing does take place, sometimes as colours blend when wet on the picture surface, adding extra visual drama and looking as if they haven’t even dried out yet.

In ‘Summertime’ (Number 9A), painted in 1948, we see a composition that resembles some form of rhythmic calligraphy. Unlike ‘Blue Poles’, this work is less dependant on multiple layers. Rather, any illusion of ‘depth’ is created by sophisticated application of the paint onto the bare canvas. In other words, its all in the eye and it’s connection to the wrist. In fact, this action doesn’t require him even to touch the canvas, as the paint is dripped onto it and allowed to settle. He may have moved the canvas, walked around it and added colour where necessary, but never allowed the essential ‘rhythmic’ flow to be compromised.

The overall effect of Pollocks’ work is a mixture of primordial drama and spontaneous elaboration. A mix however that tapped into the public imagination, if not exactly affection. He arguably became the most famous artist in America during his short lifetime (he died, James Dean like in a car crash in 1956) and despite his alcoholism, with money and connections (thanks in no small part to Peggy Guggenhiem), he was able to set up home and studio in Long Island, to focus on his work. Together with his wife Lee Krasner, who during this period, despite being an artist herself, sublimated her talent to his.

Krasner’s work has often been overlooked, but now she’s enjoying something of a renaissance. During her time with Pollock, she worked on what became known as her ‘Little’ Images. The complexity of intricate layered symbols that make up many of her (comparatively few) pictures, echo written forms that are quite flat and densely packed, giving an almost opaque quality to the work. I find mystery at the heart of it.

There is also on display ‘The Eye is the First Circle’ from 1960. This comparatively large painting explores the act of seeing- a preoccupation of Krasner- and has a dynamism reminiscent of Futurism. In it’s form, limited palette and expressive brushwork, the image and technique are suggestive of Masson. Krasner was plagued by insomnia at this time and like the Surrealist, she worked feverishly at night, on what became known as her ‘Umber Series’. This painting resembles a landscape, but one suggestive of eyes looking back through the maelstrom. There’s no doubt in my mind that Krasner was influenced by her husband in terms of technique, but of course influence can go in both directions.

She was by all accounts a highly disciplined and self critical artist. Unfortunately for posterity, she destroyed many of her works. Those that survive are often mixed with fragments of other work, that she cut up and incorporated into new paintings.

In this exhibition, Mark Rothko’s work is displayed in several places, including a room of its own. His paintings communicate on a number of levels. On the one hand, it has an immediate, often overwhelming effect on the spectator. But It is simultaneously ‘slow burn’. Living with the work and taking it in as part of our everyday lives, will enrich us. Rothko called his images ‘Facades’- an expression with multiple layers of meaning.

Rothko’s mature work was the culmination of a slow evolution, growing in size, scale and confidence. He had taken his art through several distinct phases, eventually arriving at Surrealism. All this time he was developing and refining a delicate yet subtle painting technique. An early work on show at the beginning of the exhibition has the appearance of a Morandi still life, but the apparent subjects are fragile, vulnerable looking and lacking structure or substance. They appear to be dissolving before our eyes. This picture may not present a direct indication of where Rothko was to go, but it does suggest aspects of it.

For a time he worked on paintings that aimed to find meaning in archaic sources and myths. Eventually however, after breaking with the Surrealists and moving towards an abstract art he hoped capable of expressing pure emotion, Rothko said “We favour the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” The adoption and development of purely abstract fields of colour owes something to Clyfford Still, but by the time of this late work, he had found his own voice.

In addition to thin oils, he often used a translucent watercolour technique called Aquarelle, to gradually build up images. Rothko’s sketchbooks are revealing of this direction. A digression perhaps, but it’s interesting to note just how significant watercolour and other opaque painting techniques were to many of the Abstract Expressionists.

One painting on display is No.1 ‘White and Red’ from 1962, which I found particularly moving. Like so many of Rothko’s works, understanding it requires a lengthy contemplation. Few clues are to be found in the merely descriptive title. The three opaque, foggy-edged rectangles seem to float on a deep black background. A prominent white layer dominates the top of the canvas and generally stands out as its most dynamic feature, even though it is slightly smaller than those below it. The middle red band dominates the painting, close to the picture plane and reinforces the stability of the overall composition. Beneath is a recessional brown form, muted to the point of disappearance, that is counterpoint to the layers above it.

These ‘Pure’ forms have the capacity to awaken dormant faculties at the edges of perception, within the receptive observer. Through the careful selection and fine tuning of colours, their relative weights and proportions, Rothko was able to engage them on an immediate emotional and spiritual level, below the threshold of conscious thought processes. In other paintings, equally emotive forms are poised above complex, subtle yet powerful fields of colour. Their different configurations capable of provoking a variety of responses.

It is poignant that also on show is Rothko’s last picture, before his depression got the better of him and he committed suicide. ‘Untitled’ (Black on Grey) was painted in 1969/70. It is a relatively small canvas by his standards of the time and displayed in Room 8 ‘Darkness Visible’. The canvas is horizontally divided; the lower part a light opaque and patchy grey, which reveals through it the darker, more evenly grey background. How ‘subjective’ should we be? I’ll leave it to you.

Willem De Kooning’s paintings explore, through a superior draughtsmanship and mixed media, the process of painting itself. In Abstract Expressionism at the RA, his work occupies the most prominent position, other than Pollock.

His art was informed by a wide knowledge of it’s history. Mostly known for his figurative subjects, De Kooning also painted landscapes and still lives. Although there are landscapes exhibited in the show, the main focus is on paintings from his ‘Women’ series- the artist’s most famous works. They are arranged to give the viewer an insight into the evolution of this series, that still have the power to shock.

‘Pink Angels’ from 1945 on display, marks for De Kooning an advance towards his characteristic style. Reminiscent of Picasso, but to a greater degree, the anatomic components of the female form are fractured and distorted, so as to tie them back to the picture background. The resulting flattened image may share a conceptual link to the Postimpressionist-Cubist distortions of the picture’s space and subject from half a century before- Gauguin springs to mind- but the violence, drama and action of the scene is something totally new.

In his ‘Women’ series, the artist employed and extended his mixed media approach, using oil, enamel and charcoal. A painting like ‘Woman 1’ (50-1) might look like it was created rather quickly, but in fact it was the result of a two year period of process, in which the artist employed various methods, such as the application of newspaper to parts of the painted surface, effectively sealing them off and keeping the paint malleable, whilst adding texture. The artist could then rip them off later, thereby revealing previous layers of working. Conceptually of course, this utilised an element one might call ‘time recovery’. Sometimes the print would remain attached to the canvas, adding even further evidence of ‘process’. This collage based technique would often suggest De Kooning’s starting point; when smiles, eyes etc from women’s magazines were incorporated into the painting, used and transformed.

De Kooning’s paintings look very much in a state of flux and yet seem complete. As if he’s trying to physically tie down the subject with swathes of material. He’d use whatever means necessary to apply the paint to the canvas, physically tearing at the picture where necessary. It was Picasso who often questioned the nature of a painting being ever ‘finished’ and so with De Kooning. It was also Picasso who would later borrow from De Kooning’s approach in his later work.

De Kooning claimed that his work was not a process of reduction, but rather addition. “I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and colour. I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it – drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or idea.” He seems to ‘build up’ his subjects, transmuting them by his radical method of action painting, into forms capable of expressing something deeper.

But what exactly. Can we define what they express? Certainly De Kooning’s paintings have a vitality and presence to them and are visually interesting. They also have a precision in terms of their execution. I would argue that the artist was able capture the essence of his subjects, however distorted they might appear. In their fractured form, we learn something about our own vulnerability. Remember, when the Abstract Expressionists were painting, there was the very real fear of nuclear annihilation.
It’s all here in De Kooning’s work.

Significantly perhaps, the artist spent time as an apprentice commercial artist in his native Rotterdam as a young man as well as in the US. The origins of his mature work, in terms of subject, composition and scale, do possess something of the billboard and poster. His time as a house painter no doubt also had an effect on his art, if one considers his painting technique and palette.

De Kooning was a superb painter and his work still looks visually powerful. However, it’s complicated when looking at the ‘Women’ series today. From a Feminist perspective, there remain many questions that need to be answered. Why the female form? Why the violent treatment of subject? What if any issues lay behind these choices? How Freudian do we go? The artist’s distinctive method of painting was new and progressive at the time. But his subjects were actually relatively traditional and he used those same methods in his landscape pieces. Also, De Kooning painted many solitary male figures during his career. If you want to look into his life, you might find some answers to explain his choice and treatment of the female form. He battled alcoholism and had a complex relationship with his wife Elaine. Yet they shared an artistic connection that ran the course of both their lives. In the final analysis, it is therefore necessary for the individual to extract, from the large amount of opposing points of view, their own opinion about De Kooning’s motivations. His art stands as art.

De Kooning’s influence can be seen in the art of another artist on display. Franz Kline. This is particularly noticeable in the angular, slash like marks that Kline often used to delineate the canvas and to explore the spontaneity and drama of the painterly ‘gesture’. He produced works of great visual impact who's subjects were completely abstract.

On display is ‘Vawdavitch’ from 1955, which powerfully demonstrates the pictorial possibilities attainable when the artist’s focus is reduced to a certain set of parameters. Many of Kline's works have the appearance of calligraphy, in particular, Chinese or Japanese. Although the artist himself denied a direct influence, it can be seen in the precise application of paint, through careful control of the hand, coordinated with the eye. This then gives these works an added degree of precision in terms of their composition and realisation of form.

It should however be added that Kline’s working process was complicated. He often worked from extensive preparatory studies- something rare among the Abstract Expressionists- which might seem to contradict the ‘intuitive’ look of his paintings.

However, Kline was a painter of brilliance. All the same, I wonder how many people see just how subtle his paintings actually are. The root of their tensions and drama can appear in the smallest of details, where the white paint has been thinly laid over the edges of the black for example. Or in the traces of where the artist has twisted his brush at an angle. In a busy gallery, although they are visually very powerful, I think it takes time and determination to really appreciate their subtleties.

Arshille Gorky was a pivotal figure in the history of the development of Abstract Expressionism. From distant Armenia, he arrived in the US in 1920 a broken man, a haunted survivor of the genocide carried out against his people by the Turks during the First World War. Gorky’s mature work is both playful and intensely powerful. They reveal and explore internal dramas- traumas of the artist played out through expressive and varied abstract forms.

By the mid 40s, he had been close to many of the artists that would later emerge at the forefront of the first wave of Abstract Expressionism and who themselves would hail him as an influence. Pollock, Krasner and Rothko met the artist working on the Federal Art Project in the early 30s. Later he became friends with De Kooning too. Gorky’s influence is central to the evolution of the basic principles of Abstract Expressionism. The large scale on which these artists worked, as well as the principle of ‘all over’ coverage. Not only that, but their diverse gestural techniques were indebted to his pioneering efforts.

His abstract language of form and colour expresses raw emotion. No better example of this was painted in 1947, is ‘Agony”. Its blood red, closed-eyes palette recalls Matisse, but in its evocation of unendurable trauma, may be seen as a state of mind. The figures, if they can be seen as such, recall the abstract distortions of Kandinsky. In this picture, everything is in a state of flux. Also, consider ‘The Liver is the Cock’s Comb’ from 1944. Its colourful limpid forms, inspired by Picasso and Miro, are part barbarity, part humour. They are sometimes opaque, partly caricature and spread fairly equally over the picture surface. In ‘Abstract Expressionism at the RA’ , Gorky’s work is prominently displayed. We see his examples of his early works as well as ‘Water of the Flowery Mill’ from 1944.

Clyfford Still’s large paintings are composed of flat, two dimensional interlocking areas that explore, through dramatic divisions of the canvas, the borders and abysses between each. The artist made spiritual associations between the forms in his paintings and ideas of transcendence. Prominently displayed in this exhibition is ‘PH-950’ from 1950. An uncompromisingly ‘abstract’ painting that is in no way tries to delude the viewer into three dimensional illusion.

With its irregular ‘jagged’ edges, Still’s work recalls ripped-off-the-wall posters and certain constructivist art. The forms in his paintings are flat, yet are subtle in varied texture, tone or colour. Still applied his paint using a palette knife. This enabled him to give great variation to the picture surfaces and particularly the borders.

Barnett Newman once wrote “old standards of beauty were irrelevant: the sublime was all that was appropriate – an experience of enormity which might lift modern humanity out of its torpor.” He believed that the subjects and mechanisms of traditional art had ran their course and were no longer relevant.

After a period working in a Surrealist vain, Newman shifted the focus of his art towards the existentialist concerns that would drive his mature work. Among his large expansive canvases on display in the exhibition is ‘Midnight Blue’ from 1970. It poetically evokes an emotional response to the colour blue on large scale, as well as playing with our readings of it’s space.

Newman developed what he called ‘Zips’, thin vertical lines, connecting both sides of the canvas. These explored the traditional tensions between background and foreground, playing upon the borders between the subject and its setting. Although they may appear as divisions, the Zips are meant to convey the merger of both sides of the canvas.

The early Zips were variegated, but as he progressed they became sharper and more defined. His first fully developed Zip painting was ‘Onement 1’ from 1948. But we see on display ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ from 1951 and 1950. Both these works are highly symbolic and relate to the artist’s interest in creation myths. Their red and brown colours are suggestive of the connection between earth and the blood of life.

Newman stated that he and his contemporaries were seeking a totally new form of visual expression, “by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it.” It would exist as “self-evident” purged of reference to the historical, mythical or nostalgic. An art made “out of our own feelings”.

Ad Reinhardt made a steady progression towards abstract art. Initially composed of primordial geometric shapes and arrangements, his subsequent work explored single colours or tone. Reinhardt eventually came to his Black paintings, that are composed of black layers on top of a black background. The ‘subject’ of ‘Abstract Painting’ (1960) is a cruciform shape. It is distinguished from the ‘background’ only by the way the paint is applied. It’s tone and texture slightly lighter. Looking similar to when you use a roller on wet printing ink. The background looks darker in finish.

Such absolute pictorial concerns suggest comparisons to Malevich and Reinhardt’s paintings certainly share certain rectilinear and symmetrical preoccupations. Certainly both he and Malevich had a grounding in Cubism, through which their mature work evolved. When looking at his later work, it is perhaps surprising to note that he had worked as a commercial illustrator in a variety of contexts. He was also significant for his writings and his activism. In particular in opposition to US involvement in Vietnam.

Newman and Reinhardt are exhibited in the same room.

One of my favourite artists on display was Mark Tobey. By a dramatic process of layering calligraphic-like symbols on yet more layers of complex marks and signs, he developed his own version of the uniform ‘all over’ coverage that Pollock was exploring. With Tobey’s painting and prints, these layers add up on the picture surface, so as to create exquisitely lyrical, yet densely packed canvases that are examples of what he called ‘white writing’.

Of course, none of that conveys just how beautiful, fragile and constantly changing his paintings are to look at. Like some ancient script or details of a richly patterned Turkish carpet. The light that seems to emanate from them was to my eyes, reminiscent of light falling to the ground through trees. Subtle, forever shifting and visually dynamic. Particularly special is the way Tobey was able to create subtle contrasts between the lighted background and the dark ink-like markings.

Tobey travelled widely throughout his later life and adopted the B'Hai faith. He also studied several Asian languages and their scripts, including Farsi, Arabic and the intricacies of Chinese Calligraphy. Later still, Hai Ku poetry in Japan. The lessons of all this explain why his paintings exhibit a distinct Oriental flavour in their precision and fluidity of form. But Tobey’s marks are abstract flourishes, suggestive of pure expression rather than any linguistic meaning.

Robert Motherwell was often inspired by subjects and themes drawn from classical literature, philosophy or history as his points of departure and sometimes used text in his work. An example of this are his more than 140 ‘Elegies to the Spanish Republic’. Many of his paintings have elements of Cubism or Matisse about them. Mostly however they contain subjects that are suggestive of something more primal. Like in Still’s art, his work is flat and sometimes quite painterly. Abstract forms that have many of the structural properties and tensions of Oriental calligraphy, in the way that the artist has painted them. Others canvases look as if they might have less abstract origins; for example, evoking still lives. Motherwell’s palette varied between monochrome and blocks of colour, occasionally mixed. He also used collage elements as points of reference, including sheet music.

I think its fair to say that in the minds of the general public at least, Abstract Expressionism was a male dominated art movement. Like its predecessor Surrealism, it had many female adherents and artists of great talent involved. But unlike Surrealism- at least in terms of how it presented itself- tended to fall back on the idea of the ‘macho’ male outsider artist, alone and temperamental. That of course was the public image, but what were the facts?

As we have seen, the 50s were a time of great conformity in America. Women were still expected to be immaculately dressed housewives, effectively serving their husbands and looking after the kids. Among the general population too- despite the rise of the anti hero in film and pop music- there was little room for individual expression. But since Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ and especially the Federal Art Project of the mid thirties, many women had found ways to function as independent artists, outside their conventional roles as wives and mothers. The war too had provided hitherto unavailable jobs that allowed escape from domestic drudgery. Also, the emergent Beatnik movement now offered a certain amount of liberation; politically, socially as well as sexually. All these developments provided new artistic opportunities for women. 'Abstract Expressionism at the RA' tries to demonstrate the prominent position of women as artists, theorists and documenters through the work selected and accompanying supporting material.

Joan Mitchell was part of the second wave of Abstract Expressionists. She often worked large. So large in fact that the single piece could become a diptych. To these eyes, her painting has an oriental flavour. Aspects of it reminded me of classical Chinese scroll painting as well as Monet. The vast scale of ‘Waterlilies’, as well as it’s exploration of colour and the properties of paint. In some paintings, Mitchell shows the influence of Mondrian. In particular his early ‘Tree’ paintings, that seem to sit between the abstract and representational.

She once stated: “Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work". Certain of her paintings seem to be derived from landscape subjects, but the marks she makes do not necessarily look like they are drawn directly from nature. Rather, some kind of improvisation appears to be taking place on the picture plane and the results sit between the two.

Usually, Mitchell painted on a pale or white background, which gave her work an added graphic quality. Also, as far as being an Abstract Expressionist, her art is significant because she keeps to conventional compositional arrangements of subject, background and foreground, rather than evenly filling the entire picture plane like say Jackson Pollock.

Mitchell was a painter and printmaker who’s inventive and gestural mark making is varied in form and fresh to look at. At times, the paint seems diluted, daubed or sponged onto the picture’s surface, so that it is almost translucent and opaque. In addition to the brush, she often used her own fingers to manipulate it, which gives the work a directness. Her application of paint sometimes looks violent, other times it is more sensual. But the resulting works are always vivid, dynamic and have the appearance of being in a state of constant flux.

Her work is also tight and echoes Impressionist painting in its composition, methods of mark making and celebration of colour. She was particularly influenced by Van Gogh, which can be seen not just in terms of technique but also subject matter. Her 1987 work ‘No Birds’ is in fact a response to Vincent’s late painting ‘Wheatfield and Crows’. One other source of inspiration for Mitchell’s work was literary in the form of poetry.

David Smith made his enigmatic and totemic sculptures by welding. Traditional metal sculpture was cast, rather than constructed- a very laborious and time consuming process. But Smith would weld together objects- often found, so as to create unique metal sculptures, in a similar way to a painter selecting images, forms or colours. Thus creating a union of discrete symbols. He once even said “I belong with the painters”. His was a revolutionary approach that offered unprecedented spontaneity in three dimensions. It allowed Smith to react quickly to a subject or instinct in ways hitherto impossible for somebody working in metal. As he also said, the sculptors “conception is (now) as free as a that of the painter”.

The genesis of his subject matter might take the form of a landscape, still life or even a pure idea. One piece is called ‘The Letter’ for example. The results may sometimes even have figurative elements to them. An unknowable abstract figure, seemingly suggested by the fragments used to make it, that recalls work made by Giacometti. At the other extreme, many pieces look diagrammatic, like pictograms drawn in metal through the air and linked by lines in space. Certain sculptures are delicate and filigree, looking like they could drift off their plinths, whist others remain heavy and industrial, earthbound.

Many of the preoccupations and techniques of Smith’s art would go on to influence successive generations of artists, in Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art. Take a look at Anthony Caro’s work for example. In the final analysis, Smith was pivotal in liberating sculpture from the tyranny of technique and in freeing the imagination of the artist in three dimensions.

Some see the Abstract Expressionists as a last burst of the Romantic spirit in art. Perhaps that's a reason we like to look at the work of this period, because, even though we know today that art cannot 'change the world', we wish it could. And what might that say about our time? In which ideas of progress and liberation seem to have come to a halt and artists busy themselves with contextual and conceptual grapples, but who’s work leaves so many cold.

Some points about the exhibition venue. Crowds. Its my own fault I guess. Coming midweek half term time. But despite the small children darting here and there, it was their overbearing parents who really grated. I actually thought it wonderful that kids were seeing work like this. With their open imaginations, I think it vitally important that they get the chance to contemplate and interpret such art. Something that is a challenge to their assumptions about what a work of art can be. One young lad I overheard, after pondering a De Kooning landscape said “Wow, its just like a photograph”. Who says kids cant do sarcasm brilliantly.

One other bit of advice. When visiting ‘Abstract Expressionism at the RA’, try not to be overwhelmed by the large numbers of paintings on display. My advice is to explore each artist, theme etc and avoid all the distractions available. Large visitor numbers in a small space require patience and time, so as to get the best from the show. Id even suggest several visits, to get the most out of proceedings. I think you ultimately take away from this show the spirit of that relatively short period, in which vast new possibilities were opening up in art.

In the final analysis, one thing is obvious. 70 years on, the art of the Abstract Expressionists still has the power to express the spirit of the time in which it was made. To enchant, inspire and confound people of all ages. And thank goodness for that. This is one of the most comprehensive and successful retrospectives I have seen in years. The ambition of the all involved certainly paid off and they wholeheartedly deserve commendation for an exhibition of a calibre not likely to been seen again in this country for a long time.

(C) Gideon Hall 2016

Abstract Expressionism
24 September 2016 — 2 January 2017
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/abstract-expressionism

Author's review: 
5