Exhibition Review – Abstract Expressionism at The Royal Academy of Arts

Tuesday 1st November 2016

5/5 stars

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Photo: royalacademy.org.uk

– That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?
– Yes, it is.
– What does it say to you?
– It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

(Woody Allen, Play It Again, Sam) 

The words ‘pretentious’ and ‘self-indulgent’ are thrown around a lot in prosecution of the art world, and whilst I would always attempt to contradict such accusations, they perhaps ring no truer than when they are directed at discussions of Abstract Expressionism. For it can be difficult not to descend into comical, cerebral nonsense when attempting to analyse and reason with paintings that so freely abandon any sort of recognisable images, narratives or forms, to talk about images that most often than not seem to depict nothing material at all.

When the Abstract Expressionists were first introduced in galleries across New York, this complete abandoning of painting tradition did indeed frustrate and alienate a great many critics and connoisseurs of art. Nonetheless, as I enter the Royal Academy of Arts today, it is a sprawling mass of tourists and families, drawn in by the now ubiquitous, iconic paintings of Pollock and Stills advertised on the pennants the gallery has strung along Piccadilly.

The exhibition begins with the very earliest works from the movement, the nightmarish, violent pieces the New Yorkers and European émigrés were painting as they emerged from civil war, world war and the impending threat of nuclear destruction. Religious symbols, objects and humanoid shapes are torn aggressively into abstraction, and particularly affecting are the landscapes of Arshile Gorky, his paintings of external scenes beautifully and painfully fraught by his own psychological torment. These early works, nonetheless, often feel somewhat constrained by their highly wrought symbolism, and it can even feel a little like detective work trying to decipher their often abstract, surrealist titles.

Then I pass into the cavernous hallway of the central room, and the walls seem to rise in order to accommodate the vast, awe inspiring canvasses of Pollock, Rothko and Stills. These works are often untitled, or are merely numbered by the artist, and hence they avoid the frustrating guesswork caused by their predecessors. As I look upon these huge centrepieces of the exhibition, I am then convinced that the greatest works of Abstract Expressionism relied not upon the symbolism of religious iconography or recognisable objects, but made use of the inherently more expressive communicative power of Colour.

It seems Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning approached the violence and torment of the first Abstract Expressionist works to far greater effect through their devastating dashes of dark colours and shapes. Elsewhere the later colour fields of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt even experimented with the limiting and reduction of variations in shades and gestures. Each artist began to bring their own palette of colours, their particular application of chiaroscuro and brushwork, to their paintings in order to express their own unique emotions and ideas. But as you become engulfed in the immensity of some of these paintings, the artist’s emotions seem to dissolve amidst your own response to the work, and each viewer brings their own personal experiences and feelings to the abstract shapes and colours of each piece.

Perhaps that’s why any critical orator of Abstract Expressionism is liable to find that they descend helplessly into the ramblings of a Woody Allen sycophant, it becomes merely beyond words to expound the abstract, deeply felt emotions some of these pieces evoke. These are works to be seen in the flesh, experienced rather than talked too much about, and most of all I was incredibly moved after having the chance to see so many exhibited under one roof.

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