The Abstract Expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy is powerful. You come out stunned as you do from a great cathedral, a brilliant concert, or a frightening or exultant experience. “I paint tragedy, ecstasy, and doom,” said Mark Rothko. The Abstract Expressionists as a whole did, but the beautiful and mostly huge Rothkos assembled in one room exuded peace and tranquillity to me.
The great thing about this exhibition is that it brings all the Abstract Expressionists together in one exhibition—for the first time in London since 1959. I’ve seen the work of all the artists at one time or another, and I’ve walked the Abstract Expressionists galleries at MOMA—but this exhibition is much better than that. It gives you a feel for all the major artists (Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning. Still, Gorky, Reinhardt, Kline) with each of them getting a room, but you also see the historical development—assimilating and moving beyond Europeans like Picasso, Van Gogh, and the surrealists and eventually coming to an end with Guston’s crude figurative paintings.
And the best thing of all is that many of the large rooms feature huge paintings in a way that in London can be done only at the Royal Academy. MOMA Can’t match the space. I must, for example, have seen paintings by Clifford Still before, but I’d never seen a large room filled with huge paintings. Evidently he sold only a few paintings in his life, and 95% of all his work is in a museum in Denver devoted to him. I loved too the huge Pollock’s, including his breakthrough painting, Mural, which hung in Peggy Guggenheim’s Manhattan flat.
Inevitably an exhibition that features all the artists prompts the questions of do they actually fit together into one genre and if they do what characterises the genre. The beautiful catalogue which I’ve bought and plan to read contains a provocative quote from the Abstract Expressionist sculptor David Smith that says: “Names are usually given to groups by people who don’t understand them or don’t like them.”
One cocurator argued that what made them a movement was that they all lived in poverty, painted hugely ambitious works, and supported each other. The other cocurator thought that they are brought together by the fact that their works are almost all abstract and yet they were trying to express emotion directly to people who might have felt more comfortable with representation art.
I felt that they did fit together, although one of the strengths of this exhibition was to show that they were all distinctly different. It takes no knowledge of art whatsoever to see the difference between Rothko and Pollock, but bother are using abstraction and colour to say something profound to viewers; the paintings of both have an “enterability,” as one of the cocurators put it. The viewer is part of the work.
It’s romantic as well to think that they are held together like jazz. They were creating their paintings in the 40s and 50s in New York just when jazz was at its most creative in the same city—with Parker, Davis, Coltrane, Minhus, and Monk creating wonderful music that is itself both abstract (compared with, say, Mozart), expressionist, and crucially improvised. People might write off Abstract Expressionists as people who couldn’t paint splashing paint about, but—exactly as in jazz—their spontaneity, impact, and emotion depended on technique and experimentation.
I will go again to this exhibition.