Reading time: 2 minutes
Key 305, Arshile Gorky: Water of the Flowery Mill (1944), Oil on canvas, 107.3 x 123.8 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016
Digital image © 2016. The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence
‘Angst, tragedy, beauty, and mystery.’ Judging by the breathless prose the Royal Academy of Arts has used to describe its new Abstract Expressionism exhibition, it’s not to be missed. Abstract Expressionism emerged in New York during the ‘age of anxiety’ after the Second World War, and produced household names such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. Although these radical creations arguably shaped 20th-century art, they have only enjoyed one moment in the sun. In 1959, The Museum of Modern Art in New York sent its exhibition, “The New American Painting,” to eight cities in Europe, but since then, there has been no overarching study on that scale.
“Once Abstract Expressionism peaked in the 1950s, a lot happened soon afterwards,” says Dr. David Anfam, co-curator of the current exhibition and the pre-eminent expert on the movement. “There was Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and so forth, so Abstract Expressionism quickly became a kind of golden oldie and also got elbowed out of the way by new movements that, in fact, it had often influenced.”
Key 76, David Smith: Star Cage (1950), Painted and brushed steel, 114 x 130.2 x 65.4cm
Lent by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The John Rood Sculpture Collection.
© Estate of David Smith/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016
The exhibition is dominated by the big names: Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952), Rothko’s No. 4 (1953), and Clyfford Still’s PH-950 (1950), which travelled all the way from his namesake museum in Denver, Colorado. Despite the impressive array of masterpieces, gathering these pieces from around the world was not difficult. Dr. Anfam says with a glint of pride, “getting the loans was surprisingly straightforward; a reflection of the high esteem in which the RA is held worldwide.” Among the giants, there are lesser-known works, photography, and sculpture, that are meant to contextualise and complement the featured works.
From the size of some of the canvases—Pollock’s Mural (1943) measures eight feet by twenty feet—to the dramatic draftsmanship, the result is almost overwhelming. These works successfully continue to evoke the angst of their contemporary periods more than half a century later.
Key 34, Jackson Pollock: Blue poles (1952), Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 212.1 x 488.9 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016
Perhaps what’s most stunning about this exhibition is the diverse span of styles and artists who belong under the umbrella of Abstract Expressionism. There are the action painters, like Pollock and de Kooning, who emphasise the physical act of painting, but there are also those like Rothko, whose work relies on large fields of colour.
Dr. Anfam believes it to be clichéd to separate the artists by approach. In fact, he told Painters Table in 2013, such delineations are “shallow, formalist, and should be put to rest for good.” In Dr. Anfam’s more wholesome approach, it appears that these works are united by a time and a place: post-war America, particularly in New York. This was the moment in which Paris ceded its status as the world capital of art to the Big Apple.
Given that, what can the residents of modern London take from this exhibition? Emotion, according to Dr. Anfam. “The Abstract Expressionists sought to express basic human emotions—angst, tragedy, transcendence, the sense of beauty and mystery in the face of the facts of existence,” he explains. “People should see their art because it reflects the extremes of the human condition itself.”
Key 12, Franz Kline: Vawdavitch (1955), Oil on canvas, 158.1 x 204.9 cm
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Claire B. Zeisler 1976.39
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016
Photo: Joe Ziolkowski
It also reflects America. Dr. Anfam, the British senior consulting curator at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, is keen for the movement to gain prominence in London. “Because Abstract Expressionism was an American phenomenon, it’s more widely known on the other side of the Atlantic,” he says. “That’s one very good reason why we have held the exhibition here: so that people, including a younger generation who never saw the last such show in 1959 at the Tate, can get to know it better.”
The exhibition runs until 2 January 2017, plenty of time for you to visit, return, and contemplate its complexities.