24th September to 2 January
Words: Helena Cox
Abstract Expressionism an ‘arena in which to act.'
‘At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act – rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyse, or “express” an object, actual or imagined’. Harold Rosenberg, ‘The American Action Painters,’ (1952).
The Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy is a glittering spectacle on London’s art scene, presenting an all-encompassing display of the artists who transformed the canvas into an ‘arena’ of performance and innovation. Curated by art historian Dr David Anfam, and Contemporary Curator at the RA Edith Devaney, the display supplants the spectator into an Aladdin’s cave, where 163 Abstract Expressionist works are unveiled.
Emerging in the early 1940s, the focus shifted from Paris to New York as the mecca of the art world. After World War II, there had been a great influx of European émigrés into New York, artists such as Dali, Ernst, Masson, Breton, Mondrian and Léger. While the emerging artists of Abstract Expressionism admired the European tradition, they were eager to set themselves apart by reinvigorating the Avant-garde with new innovations. They also wanted to react against Social Realism, which had been dominating the American art since the 1930's. As an artistic movement, Abstract Expressionism certainly defies clear stylistic categorisation; the key movers and shakers of the movement all had diverse artistic vision and style. The movement has often been divided into action painters, who made gesture their primary piece de resistance, such as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956); and Colourists, artists who exploited the expressive power of colour, which is exemplified in Mark Rothko’s (1903-1970) chromatic aesthetic. Yet, the strength of the RA’s exhibition is uniting the Abstract Expressionists, as artists who channelled abstract imagery and sought to capture the expressive qualities of human emotion and lived experience.
In Summertime, 1948, Pollock abandoned the convention of easel painting and painting with a brush. Instead, he dripped and poured paint over a canvas, which he idiosyncratically placed flat on the ground. Pollock consequently became a kind of performer, wielding control from above. However, the sense of spontaneity, impulse, and accident belies the determined control he mastered over his works. Pollock’s energetic outpourings were in fact controlled artistic performances. He once quipped there was ‘No chaos damn it’, in his approach. Summertime evokes the genre of landscape painting, but what we get is in fact not a traditional landscape painting but an abstract evocation of a mood. Fragmented planes of colour, red, yellow and blue infuse the work, which is contrasted with lines of changing thickness. The painting conveys Pollock’s interest in automatism, a method pioneered by Freud in his studies of the unconscious mind, that the Surrealists began to explore visually in their works. Breton defined psychic automatism as the ‘absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns’. Automatism thus favoured an intuitive expression from the subconscious mind, which Pollock has channelled in the energetic abstract web of paint that bursts across the canvas. He exploits the figurative potential of the line; swirling lines cover the canvas in a rhythmic ‘all-over’ style. Historians have tried to read between the lines visually and decode Pollock’s web of intricacies, many perceiving depictions of figures in a landscape or summer activities. Pollock’s canvas succeeds in transporting the viewer to what he deemed to be the expression of an ‘inner world’ and the unveiling of ‘inner forces’.
Mark Rothko, Yellow Band, 1956. Mark Rothko, No 15, 1957, oil on canvas, private collection
"Deemed as ‘facades’ by Rothko these paintings create a bewitching paradox; they simultaneously seek to conceal and reveal."
The curatorial prowess of the exhibition creates a dramatic frisson, moving from the theatrical performativity of Pollock to the spiritual mood paintings in the Rothko room. The rectangular motif became the spiritual totem for Rothko, expressing both his fascination with architecture, most noteworthy his admiration for Michelangelo’s vestibule of the Laurentian Library, at the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Rothko claimed Michelangelo had achieved what he was after in his own work, making the viewers feel ‘trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up’. Yet gazing at Rothko’s works they are arguably far from claustrophobic, he succeeds in creating mood paintings which evoke an aura of mystical serenity; they invite the viewer to move closer and meditate on the chromatic qualities. The magic certainly comes into play, with a feathery halo effect that often encloses the rectangular fields, evoking the numinous. Deemed as ‘facades’ by Rothko these paintings create a bewitching paradox; they simultaneously seek to conceal and reveal. Indeed, the series incarnates Rothko’s ‘simple expression of the complex thought’; standing before these ‘facades’ the viewer is presented with a threshold that we attempt to cross both mentally and physically.
A highlight of the show is Lee Krasner’s (1908-1984) The Eye is the First Circle of 1960. Krasner married Pollock in 1945, and her influence over the artist has often been underestimated. After her husband’s death in 1956, Krasner moved into his studio and began to work on a colossal scale. This work reflects Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Circles’ (1841), which Krasner had read as a teenager, in which Emerson posits a fluid and volatile reading of the universe. ‘The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second, and throughout nature, this primary figure is repeated without end’. It was only on completion that Krasner titled the work and ‘saw those eyes, too’. The eye acts as a symbolic motif, perhaps representing the discerning eye of the artist, and also reflecting back at work the eye of the spectator in the act of looking at art. A myriad of eyes merge creating a complex network of gazes in between the curving arabesques, offering a play on reflection in Krasner’s deeply personal work. The umber monochromatic palette evokes the feline, suggesting a living force in the biomorphic lines. At the time Krasner had taken to painting her umber works at night, triggered by her insomnia and depression. The painting certainly emanates a living strength and a sinuous confidence.
Clyfford Still, PH-235, 1944, oil on canvas, Richmond, Virginia | Left- Clyfford Still, PH-950, 1950 oil on canvas, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver.
Clyfford Still’s (1904-1980) arresting aesthetic is celebrated towards the end of the show, representing his depictions of the Western American landscape. The Still room offers the unique chance to see his work due to a loan from the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. The large canvases that adorn the walls bring to the fore Still’s definition of his paintings as ‘life and death merging in fearful union’, conceived with daring and jagged draughtsmanship. This is certainly the case with the electrifying PH-235, where forms akin to lightning bolts represent a sublime confrontation with nature. The spectator confronts these pulsating works, which exude a certain sense of uncertainty. Stalactitic and stalagmitic forms act as defining features, creating a striking verticality. PH-950 and PH-4 reflect Still’s penchant for the absence of titles, instead he preferred that titles did not ‘interfere with’ or ‘assist’ the spectator, but instead rendered them ‘on his own’ to which ‘if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul’. The imagery Still uses invites diverse interpretations; while the artist rendered a relationship with the land, there is a certain quality in several works, such as PH-950 which calls to mind an analogy with the skyscrapers of New York, towering majestically over the skyline. However, the power of Still’s striking abstracted silhouettes is their denial of classification and direct representation. His creations generate organic forms which all triumph in fusing into a ‘living spirit’. These works symbolise forces of life, they are as exhilarating and epic as they are overwhelming. Still’s abstract landscapes recall Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime (1757), where Burke maintained that ‘terror’, ‘astonishment’, ‘with some degree of horror’ were all characteristics of the sublime in nature. Still believed that the paintings spoke for themselves, and that ‘you can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire’.
Without a doubt, the RA’s exhibition carries its own fire. It is artistically ablaze with intensity, fervour and passion, offering an exceptional opportunity to view an all encompassing exhibit of the Abstract Expressionists.