Friday, 23 December 2016

Abstract Expressionism:A monument to the American century?

The huge canvases of the Abstract Expressionists stand as much as a reminder of the vastness and power of America as the Hollywood sign, the face of Mount Rushmore, or Monument Valley in Arizona. They seem, in retrospect, a testament to a century that will be looked back on as the American century. With the advent of Trump's petty, insular, and inward looking politics it's hard to see the 21st century being viewed the same way.

Trump would probably be equally peeved by the birth certificates of some of the genre's most well known practitioners. Mark Rothko was born in Russia, Willem de Kooning in the Netherlands, and Arshile Gorky in Armenia. They'd certainly not pass the small-handed, small-minded president-elect's birther test. In fact they help show us just how much immigration contributes to the image, and gaiety, of the nation. Of all nations. Potential UKIP voters might like to think about this instead of getting enraged by the Daily Mail's lies and propaganda.

Despite the work's modernity it's worth noting how old much of this stuff is now. Virtually every artist in the exhibition is dead. Jackson Pollock died sixty years ago and Arshile Gorky took his own life as far back as 1948. There hadn't been a major retrospective of Abstract Expressionism in the UK since the New York's Museum of Modern Art's touring The New American Painting visited the Tate in 1959.

So, the Royal Academy's new show was long overdue but had they bitten off more than they could chew? Many of these artists could command a show in their own right. Was it too much to cram them all in together?

I was certainly daunted by the prospect of taking this much art in in one go but I needn't have been concerned. It had been lightly, yet lovingly, curated and took me and my friends, Mark and Natalie, on a journey through the movement that began in New York in the mid-40s referencing German expressionism and the European schools of abstraction. It was, besides WWII, the single biggest factor in the art world's westward shift from Paris to New York City.

Some of the early works, like Richard Pousette-Dart's Undulation (1961-1962, above) and Rothko's atypical Gethsemane (1944, below) clearly show the links to Europe. These apron strings would be cut as the movement developed but surrealism and cubism remained in the DNA of the Abstract Expressionists.

There seems an obvious influence of the Catalan surrealist Joan Miro in the works of Arshile Gorky. Gorky had a deep knowledge of the history of art so it's unlikely to be a coincidence that Water of the Flowery Mill (1944, above) and Diary of a Seducer (1945, below) approximate, and build on, Miro's childlike, and free, style.

Not long after these works were made Gorky's life descended into catastrophe. A 1946 fire burnt down his Connecticut studio, he underwent a colostomy for cancer, his wife had an affair with fellow artist Roberto Matta, before, in 1948, becoming paralyzed in a car accident. Later that year he hung himself. A tragic end to a short, but creative, life.

Jackson Pollock was another who died aged just 44. His art now as instantly recognisable as anyone else in the history of art bar perhaps Dali and Warhol. Familiarity, for me, has failed to bring contempt. They're still infinitely fascinating. The visual counterpoint for the new jazz sounds coming out around the same time. Phosphorescence (1947, above) is perhaps your typical Pollock. Paint poured and dripped all over the canvas. It looks random at first but pay closer inspection and you can begin to identify patterns and even, though this could be a trick of the mind, motifs.

1943's Mural, below, was the largest canvas Pollock ever created. It was commissioned by art collector Peggy Guggenheim for her Manhattan townhouse. The size, and the way the lines chime and rhyme with each other, speak not just of what was going on in Pollock's troubled mind but what he was doing with his body too. They're incredibly physical works. You could spend a long time with them.

One criticism of Pollock, and Abstract Expressionism as a whole, is that he/it was/were very macho. All the big name artists here are men and in most writing on the subject it's the males that dominate. The RA have, correctly, made an effort to at least redress some of the balance on that score. To that end we have work by Helen Frankenthaler (below), Joan Mitchell, and Lee Krasner who, despite living much of her life in the shadow of her husband Pollock, was an accomplished painter herself with a style not dissimilar to, but complementary with, that of Pollock.

Many of the Abstract Expressionists were influenced by the grit and speed of life in New York. Franz Kline's captured some of that but also the dark poetry of film noir and even, oddly, the calmness and reflection of a Japanese woodcut or one of Whistler's nocturnes.

Below the Kline is Robert Motherwell's Wall Painting III from 1953. Motherwell had a lifelong preoccupation with the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and depicted this using a sombre palette and oppressive motifs.

Willem de Kooning had a much lighter touch. Witness Pink Angels from 1945. The violent, scrawled, colliding forms aim to speak of eroticism. In fact de Kooning was on record as saying "flesh was the reason oil paint was invented'. In 1952's Woman II, however, he bit off more than he could chew and was accused at the time of misogyny. He later went on to say that he saw "the horror in them now, but I didn't mean it. I wanted them to be funny so I made them satiric and monstrous, like sibyls". Natalie felt there was something in the accusations of sexism and Mark's opinion was that de Kooning just didn't get it right. The de Kooning room was possibly the most, or even the only, disappointing one in the whole exhibition.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is, of course, the Rothko room. With large rooms either side dedicated to Pollock and Still the tranquillity and depth of Rothko's creations act as the calm at the centre of those artists frenzied storm. Of course representations on blogs like this do nothing to convince non-believers how lovely his stuff is. The low lighting and the hushed tones in the gallery serve Rothko much better. His works, by this time, were numbered rather than named and here we have, above, 64, and, below, 15.

Rothko wanted to convey 'tragedy, ecstasy, doom' and he's certainly inspired a whole lot of hogwash to be written, and said, about his work. Since his death in 1970 people have spoke of meditating in front of them, losing themselves in the paint. Even the brochure talks of 'enigmatic hypnotism' and 'a numinous aura'. This high-handed acclaim shouldn't detract from one of the most formidable artists of the last century. Rothko felt his works aspired towards the poignancy of music and that's a pretty admirable aspiration in my eyes (and ears).

The next room contains Barnett Newman's Midnight Blue from 1970 which is such a wonderful shade of blue that I'd love to show it here but it also turns out it's exactly the shade that reflects me holding my camera so you'll have to look it up yourself. It is utterly delightful and worthy of its place alongside the Rothkos. In fact, it's my favourite work in the entire gallery. I can imagine Newman pondering, for ages, exactly where to place his 'zip' and then rubbing his hands together with glee when he'd finally done it. It may look like a fag packet or a t-shirt but it's wonderful.

Thrust out of the Rothko room into the remainder of the exhibition feels like leaving a church and heading out on to a busy street. Robert Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish Republic took ten years before it was completed in 1975. It's not clear if that's because that was the year that Franco died but the whole series took over 40 years and was said to have been painted in response to Pollock's Mural.

Whilst most of the works are paintings there are a few sculptures dotted around the place. Many of them are by David Smith who we'll run into again later. 1951/52's The Hero obviously reduces, even mocks, the human form.

Louise Nevelson's (another woman!) Sky Cathedral (1957-1960, above) reminded me of a darkened version of one of Joseph Cornell's boxes. Unlike the other sculptures it's pressed against the wall inverting the common trick of paintings aiming for three dimensional affects. This is a 3D piece aiming to be viewed as a flat canvas. I like it.

Along with painting and sculpture there was Abstract Expressionist photography too. The chief practitioner appeared to be Aaron Siskind. His works focused on small details of nature and architecture and even looked closely at the depreciation and destruction of them.

Clyfford Still's works, too, hint at events beyond our control, wildernesses untamed, and the great American outdoors. In places they can resemble Mimmo Rotella's Italian decollages. Other times they speak of Still's deep relationship with the land's 'awful bigness'. As a westerner and resolute outsider he had little to do with most of the others and, I think because of this, his work retains an immediacy and monumentality some of the lesser artists have lost with the passing of time.

He spoke of spiritual transcendence, Greek myths, and other such mumbo-jumbo yet his paintings don't seem airy-fairy at all. They seem very rooted in the real frontiers of the lived American experience. One contemporary he stayed in touch with was Jackson Pollock. Pollock said of him:- "Still makes the rest of us look academic". I think the curators are trying to say, and I agree, that if you take one thing away from this exhibition take away the fact that Clyfford Still was a major talent of the 20th century. It's no accident he's been allotted a room the size of Pollock's.

There's only one more room to navigate after Clyfford Still's and it's given over to 'Late Work'. Here you can see the aquatic, gauzy tones of William Baziotes and the 'traitorous' work of Philip Guston. Baziotes appears to look back, almost as far as Monet, whilst Guston shocked the art world, in 1970, with his brutal return to figuration. It marked the end of the golden era of Abstract Expressionism and, with hindsight and no little hyperbole, the beginning of the end of the American century.

It'd been a big big show with some huge names and some massive works. That was never in doubt. But it had also been both an education and a joy and one I was glad to share with Mark and Natalie. We retired to the Chequers Tavern in St.James's to discuss our evening out but not before a brief coda in the courtyard which had been furnished with more sculptures by Indiana's David Smith. I'd really like to see one of the big galleries dedicate a whole retrospective to this influential, and rarely seen in the UK, artist.

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