Saturday, November 5th, 2016

Conflicted Ambitions: Abstract Expressionism at London’s Royal Academy

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts

September 24, 2016 to January 2, 2017
Picadilly Circus
London, +44 020 7300 8000

Lee Krasner,The Eye is the First Circle, 1960. Oil on canvas. 235.6 x 487.4 cm. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016
Lee Krasner,The Eye is the First Circle, 1960. Oil on canvas. 235.6 x 487.4 cm. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

“Abstract Expressionism” at London’s Royal Academy, the first overview of the American movement since one held at the Tate Gallery in 1959, is a landmark event, a sprawling exhibition featuring painting, sculpture and photography from the 1930s to the ‘70s. The curators appear to have entertained two conflicting goals: to present a comprehensive survey of work from this period and to make a lucid case for its artistic achievement. Their solution has been to embed five solo shows and a two-person show amidst a composite display of work by 26 other artists. The singularly showcased painters are Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still with Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt in the two-man room. Other canonical AbEx’ers of the caliber of Philip Guston, Mark Tobey and Robert Motherwell are sparsely represented in the six remaining salons.

These mixed-artist galleries are organized chronologically or, alternatively, by stylistic theme (“Color as Gesture,” “The Violent Mark,” and “Darkness Visible.”) One possible explanation for the exhibition’s muddy curatorial direction is that it reflects the accomplishments of the show’s guest chief curator, David Anfam. The author of a recent textbook on Abstract Expressionism, Anfam is also Senior Consulting Curator at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado and author of the catalogue raisonné of the artist. This left me wondering whether the decision to feature a strong, cohesive selection of Still’s work in the exhibition’s best gallery was intended to show that artist’s superior aesthetic standing among his peers or if it was merely a byproduct of Anfam’s professional interests.

Clyfford Still,PH-950, 1950. Oil on canvas, 233.7 x 177.8 cm. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver © City and County of Denver / DACS 2016
Clyfford Still,PH-950, 1950. Oil on canvas, 233.7 x 177.8 cm. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver © City and County of Denver / DACS 2016

The term “abstract expressionism” was coined in 1946 by Robert Coates, a critic for The New Yorker. The movement’s fiercest critical champion, Clement Greenberg, preferred “American-Type Painting” in a pivotal essay dated ten years later. The artists themselves did not self-identify as part of an organized endeavor. No manifestos were written for the group as a whole and, as this current exhibition attests, the work ranges in style from highly textured gestural handling to flat, hard-edged monochrome compositions. (David Smith’s steel sculpture and a selection of works on paper and photography are also included in the show). However, statements by the various artists suggest a common commitment to unearthing a subjective interiority as part of their reinvestigation of artistic traditions. As Rothko wrote, in 1945, “We are concerned with similar states of consciousness and relationship to the world…If previous abstractions paralleled the scientific and objective preoccupations of our times, ours are finding a pictorial equivalent for man’s new knowledge and consciousness of his more complex inner self.” The Abstract Expressionists collectively pioneered introspective territory unfamiliar at the time to most other Americans.

The artists in this show worked in the turbulent times preceding, during and after the Second World War. These seismic political and cultural shifts can be read in the experimental searching evident in their output. The passing of UK’s Brexit vote earlier this year harkens back to isolationist tendencies that set the stage for war.

Likewise, the conversations surrounding the current US presidential elections echo England’s social conservatism and increasing signs of lack of tolerance. The Abstract Expressionist’s work quickly led to an explosively creative era in contemporary art in the US that spread around the world. This period of rich innovation is a reminder of the importance of pushing back against limiting fears and hatred. I think the work in the exhibition still captures the imagination, celebrates the individual, and is a reminder of the need for on-going dialogue.

The first room, “Early Works,” is a sure-footed introduction to the artists and their signature orientations. For example, Rothko’s Self-portrait (1936) presents prophetic qualities such as feathered edges and blocky forms. The composition of Pollock’s Male and Female (1942-43) is rooted in the Jungian symbolism that continued to fuel mature work.  I thus expected the last gallery, “Late Works,” to function as as a cohesive conclusion to the AbEx story. Instead it contains one late-stage work each by Hans Hoffmann and William Baziotes whose only other paintings in the show are in the very first gallery. Are we meant to cast these artists as the mascots for this movement? As a second non sequitur these paintings are abruptly placed together with a monumental work, “Salut Tom” (1979) by Joan Mitchell and one of Philip Guston’s late figurative paintings.

Two-thirds of the way through the exhibition, Still’s gallery refreshingly sidesteps any didacticism the show might have been veering towards. A spacious, generously installed room of ten large, stylistically consistent paintings allows for the digestion of his most mature style. Known as a stubborn outsider, Still’s work dodges the queasiness of Surrealism, while keeping its irrational contours. Passages of hot yellow ochre, oranges and deep reds meet patches of white and black alongside fissures of primary colors that open up like scars. His brushwork is alternately efficient and luxurious. Anfam, in the exhibition catalogue, convincingly connects Still’s work to the realm of skin and sensation, whereas it is typically associated with landscape.

Radiating out from this highpoint of the exhibition are two galleries of color field paintings and a gallery of diverse works on paper and photography. Rothko’s flat floating lozenges are presented in a dimly lit, chapel-like room on one side. The two-person gallery of geometric works in reduced color palettes by Reinhardt and Newman are on another side. Rothko’s gallery leads to de Kooning’s solo room of works from 1945 to 1966. De Kooning and Pollock are arguably the artists most often associated with Abstract Expressionism yet, in contrast to Still’s aesthetically powerful gallery, de Kooning has been selected for breadth over depth. Across 13 works de Kooning shifts from the subject of figure — such as in his iconic “Women” series — to landscape, although as the focus passes there is, in fact, a merging of his subjects.

A large gallery devoted to Pollock’s mature drip paintings, while selected in a way that represents the power of his work, was divided by two temporary walls that diminished its impact. Pollock’s largest painting, Mural (1943), commissioned by his patron Peggy Guggenheim, is placed opposite the iconic Blue Poles (1952), contrasting his all-over compositions at two distinct points. The second largest painting in the Pollock gallery is by his widow, Lee Krasner, the stylistically consistent The Eye is The First Circle (1960).

Franz Kline,Vawdavitch, 1955. Oil on canvas. 158.1 x 204.9 cm. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015.
Franz Kline,Vawdavitch, 1955. Oil on canvas. 158.1 x 204.9 cm. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015.

Presenting over 150 works, many of them masterpieces, this exhibition provides an unprecedented opportunity to draw new conclusions regarding the stylistic origins and creative power of the phenomenon widely considered the first true American aesthetic achievement in the visual arts. This only makes more painful, however, the institutional bias against women and minorities found in this exhibition, which includes but four women painters and one person of color (Norman Lewis). Mercifully, one painting that is included is by Janet Sobel, whose allover compositions arguably inspired Pollock: she is usually consigned to a catalogue footnote. Ironically, in view of the apotheosis of Clyfford Still in this exhibition, this summer the Denver Art Museum presented the exhibition “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” curated by Gwen F. Chanzit. Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, and Helen Frankenthaler, who are minimally represented in this exhibition, were featured there extensively with nine other artists. The catalogue for the show in Denver includes biographies for a total of 42 artists whose careers have regrettably been over-looked.

On the plane ride home to New York City, I watched Steven Spielberg’s movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind from 1977. As with the artists in the show, select characters in the film are subconsciously driven to express themselves as part of a bonding process with creatures from outer space. Unlike the exhibition, however, I noticed the movie wasn’t burdened with an academic voiceover-like narration. The plot climaxes with a successful exchange between aliens and humans: dialogue in place of destruction. In the 1930s and ‘40s, making a commitment to radicalism in the fine arts was an alien endeavor for most American artists compared to their counterparts in Europe, especially Paris. Furthermore, introspection was considered (and in some circles still is) a sign of weakness and a waste of time. During the war, a motley crew of Americans from both coasts achieved a fertile exchange of aesthetic ideas with recent émigrés from Europe that reached across their cultural differences. To acknowledge and act upon the subconscious required heroic leaps of faith for the characters in the movie and for the Abstract Expressionists.