Nov 2016 Journal
The Royal Academy is showing 163 works by 30 artists in its first major UK exhibition of Abstract Expressionism in nearly six decades (to 2 January 2017). The works include sculpture, which reflects the aspirant, thinly vertical forms of the accompanying paintings. Abstract Expressionism emerged at a time when freedom of expression was being celebrated in American culture and politics after the Second World War. While standout artists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky and Clyfford Still present a vision of dancing shapes, woven swirls or deep and ambiguous colours, you are deceived if you feel this is all it is.
Many early works are figurative and we see how the Surreal transformation, and later the abstraction, took root within each individual artist via a slow, personal progression rather than representing an art movement per se, as the curators emphasise.
The freeing from rigid forms that is loosely termed Abstract Expressionism began to flower in the 1940-50s. It did not come easily. Jackson Pollock grappled with figuration. Some, like the Armenian-born Arshile Gorky, who left for America, fused Surrealism with Cubism, absorbing the works of Kandinsky and his intricately florid forms. While Rothko developed rigid blocks of divided colour poured onto the canvas, Pollock became increasingly diverse. One gallery shows his 19ft-long Night Mist with its strangely animalistic shapes at one end and the more calligraphic Blue Poles at the other. The provenance of Blue Poles is controversial. It was bought for A$1.3 million by the Australian National Gallery in 1973 and approved by former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, creating political uproar in a country not ready to appreciate this art form. The scandal virtually brought down the Labour government – which had actually purchased for the nation an investment worth between A$20 million and A$100 million today.
After the Second World War some of these artists exercised a deeply lugubrious mood such as Franz Kline’s Vawdavitch, a thick scrawl of smudgy black on white, clearly representing the bleakness of the war, while Rothko’s divided blocks of dark colour, sometimes edged with imperceptible shiny white patches, offer emotional depth. The main colour may be black but the black always promises the light, and the passion of this highly intellectual painter is visible if you care to lose yourself in his work. Both he and Pollock use large canvases which arguably render the impact more powerful.
Rothko, who made his first breakthrough in 1946, was influenced by Rembrandt in his love of light and by Clyfford Sill, a noted American painter whom the Gallery is keen to promote in Britain.
Willem de Kooning’s brilliant colours and Surreal imagery describe the female form in often disturbing ways but women artists themselves are less represented here, which may perhaps be a sign of the times. Exceptions include Helen Frankenthaler, whose striking Europa, full of curves and arabesques, is loosely based on Titian’s Rape of Europa. However, Sky Cathedral, a monumental, multi-layered black sculpture, by Louise Nevelson, is thrilling and she is said to have influenced Anselm Kiefer.