• Arshile Gorky, Water of the Flowery Mill (detail), © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016
  • Portrait of American artist Lee Krasner (1908–1984) as she poses in front of one of her paintings, New York, New York, 1950s

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts

Looking at the movement as a whole.

September 24, 2016-January 2, 2017
Main Galleries, Burlington House

There have been quite a few exhibitions in the U.K. on individual Abstract Expressionists – notably the big Rothko show at Tate Britain a few years ago; rather surprisingly, though, there hasn’t been one devoted to the movement as a whole in almost six decades. Crossing the Atlantic only three years after Jackson Pollock’s death at the wheel of his car, the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “New American Painting” show (1959) rocked the cosy world of British art. Here was an entirely new approach to painting, characterised by bold, spontaneous mark-making and emotional, often violent, content. Not only that, artists living in the post-war austerity Britain must have asked themselves, how could the Americans afford to work on such vast canvases, using such vast amounts of paint?

The Royal Academy has assembled over 150 works for this impressive up-to-date survey. Four artists dominate the exhibition: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning. A succession of themed rooms, labelled “Gesture as Colour”, “The Violent Mark” and so on, add important names such as Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. Women artists, including Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, are fairly well represented. There’s also an attempt to incorporate sculpture and photography, the former consisting chiefly of the work of David Smith, which is dotted around in a rather haphazard fashion (it probably ought to have had its own room). However, this is essentially a painting show, with the emphasis firmly on the ‘Big Four’.

There are some remarkable loans – we really are very lucky with this sort of thing in London – including two huge, stand-out works by Pollock, “Mural”, painted for Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 and, hanging opposite, a key work from his late period, “Blue Poles” (1952). Rothko occupies the central rotunda, where there are six of his mesmerising “colour field” paintings, notably the darkly foreboding “No. 15” (1957). Clyfford Still is represented by nine enormous canvases from the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, where this show’s curator, David Anfam, happens to be Senior Consulting Curator. Anfam’s strong advocacy calls forth some of the most extravagant prose I’ve ever read on a gallery wall, extolling the “almost Manichaean play of luminosity and darkness” in Still’s canvases, whose “massive pictorial expanses also hold tiny contrasting accents that foster a flickering vitality, as of life mingling with death”!

Back here on planet Earth, fans of de Kooning will have nothing to complain about either, with 18 paintings by the Dutch-born artist. There include purely abstract works such as the broadly-painted “Villa Borghese” and “Untitled” of 1960-61. However, de Kooning always kept a toehold in figuration, as in problematic “Woman” series, a generous selection of which are included in the show. Do these fearsome Gorgons reflect misogyny on de Kooning’s part, or are they, as has been suggested, disguised self portraits? At the very least, the iconic “Pink Angels” (c. 1945) illustrates the artist’s famous dictum that “flesh was the reason why oil paint was invented”.

There’s much to enjoy in this exhibition, above all the sheer physical engagement with paint: Pollock’s famous drips, de Kooning’s sworls and whorls, Still’s trowellings with the palette knife, and those fuzzy outlines which give Rothko’s rectangles their almost hallucinatory quality. The variety of technique, in fact, is extraordinary, and supports Anfam’s suggestion that “Ab Ex” was more of a “phenomenon” rather than a cohesive movement as such. Going round, though, feels a bit like a nostalgia trip. Painting may have enjoyed a modest revival recently, but the act of putting oil or acrylic on canvas no longer commands the attention it did in the heady, booze-fuelled days of 1940s and ’50s New York. At this distance, Abstract Expressionism seems more like a painterly last hurrah than a new dawn.

Nicholas Marlowe

Nick studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art and History at Cambridge University. After working for thirty years in the book trade he is now a freelance writer and artist. His interests include breadmaking, touring historic battlefields, and trying to get above D4 on the flute (maybe it's time for the piccolo). He lives in Teddington, England.