Saturday 12 November 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of “Abstract Expressionism” (exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, 24 September 2016 – 2 January 2017)

When Picasso and Braque invented Cubism, it was the result of a consciously discussed approach, and their paintings during that period seem interchangeable. Exhibition text at the beginning of the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism notes significant differences between the work of individual artists.  How much, then, is it a movement? Is it more than an imposition of art historians and critics? Well, all art movements do not have to be as tightly formulated as Cubism. The impulses, establishment and continuing recognition of Abstract Expressionism point to something definite, and, post 1945, famously shifted the art world’s centre of gravity from Paris to New York. It is also well named, being concerned with abstract responses to subjective sensibilities and perceptions  (differentiating it from the figurative Expressionism of earlier in the century).
Exhibition text also provides a useful handle for getting some kind of grip on understanding individual artists. It refers to two broad categories. There are those who are gestural, with Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell good examples of bold and at times ferocious mark making; and others, notably Rothko, who chose to express themselves through areas of colour (sometimes labelled “colour field” artists).
It is an achievement of this exhibition that Jackson Pollock does not blot out the other artists while at the same time retaining his position as one of the supreme artists of the twentieth century, The curators have pulled off the spectacular coup of Pollock’s two largest paintings — Blue Poles (loaned from Australia) and Mural (commissioned in 1943 by Peggy Guggenheim for her Manhattan townhouse)— being hung on opposite walls of the same room. Pollock’s “action painting” was a revolutionary, rhythmic way of composing paintings. As with other Abstract Expressionists, what might seem random was actually deliberate, while simultaneously in the moment. His dripped paint was a journey measured by the dimensions of the canvas, but with a vast complexity of deviations. As we look at this work we embark on a perceptual journey of our own, and it is constantly surprising and fascinating.
In such a comprehensive show, there are usually winners and losers. Barnett Newman, as much a proto-Minimalist as an Abstract Expressionist, seems slightly diminished. The singular restraint and elegance of his vision are not well served when offset against the more muscular and dynamic work in other rooms. In contrast, Clyfford Still gains from a powerful selection. He was based on the West Coast, rather than New York, and many of Still’s paintings are now confined to a museum in Denver dedicated to his work. Showing in London has meant his reputation, already high, has been notched up. This is justified: his distinctive style, at times looking like torn paper on a monumental scale, is a combination of energy and contemplation. One of the exhibited paintings was completed in 1944, making it clear he was there at the start of the movement.
The Royal Academy has a track record of important exhibitions, but those, like this one, that can be more loftily described as historic are rare at any institution. I visited the Royal Academy’s Post-Impressionism in 1980, and left knowing I had seen one of the greatest London art exhibitions of the second half of the twentieth century. Abstract Expressionism has a similar status for the first half of the twenty-first: it is a once in a generation event. The work encompasses intensity and the sublime, and demands the commitment and perceptions of each viewer. Such an experience creates its own lasting reward.
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He is a member of the Biennale Austria association of artists, and recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

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