It is generally rather difficult to write a review of any sort some time after the event to review has taken place. Recalling thoughts and impressions, let alone emotions, can prove a challenging task. Luckily, none of this applies to the exhibition ‘Abstract Expressionism’, currently running at the Royal Academy of Arts. In spite of having seen it more than two weeks ago, the force of colours and depth of the experience have left an indelible mark. This exhibition is virtually impossible to forget.
The focus is, as the title suggests, Abstract Expressionism, the artistic movement flourishing in America since the early ’40s. Much like the majority of artistic phenomena, Abstract Expressionism is diverse and manifold, and the exhibition does justice to its richness. The first room begins by framing the movement historically. Arising in parallel with, or shortly after, the catastrophic events of World War II, Abstract Expressionism is seen by some as a response to the unparalleled violence of the 20th century. ‘Catastrophic’ is not used accidentally here. The first meaning of the Greek word ‘katastrophe’ is ‘turn, change’. One could almost see the abominable events of the 20th century as a dramatic change in the history of civilisation. In parallel with history, art too took a different turn, assuming darker, grimmer tones, and finding ways to articulate the tragic nature of such troubled a period.
As well as a historical perspective, the first room brings in from the beginning the role of abstraction. (Arguably) Born with Kandinsky almost 30 years earlier, abstraction in the ’40s becomes the means to dig deep into the most intimate, recondite realms of the human psyche. Abstraction allows artists to express the inexpressible and makes audiences visualise the invisible. Exploring the subconscious is paramount in abstract art, which emerges clearly in several works on display, for example ‘Idolatress’ (1963) by Hans Hofmann. The work focuses upon human figures as individuals and archetypes at once, emphasising the shared traits across mankind. Abstract shapes merge into a collective unity to acquire general significance. I was reminded of Jung’s archetypes of the collective unconscious, which blur the lines between the individual and the masses, making us all one. In a similar fashion, the boundaries between figurativism and abstraction become hazy in this work, resulting in a universal abstract language, which has the power to speak to the shared traits of our psyches, as it is typical of myth-making. A rather complex idea, but the cultural depth of Abstract Expressionism lends itself to such profound reflections.
Hans Hofmann, ‘Idolatress’ (1963)
The rest of the gallery spaces are articulated in two ways. On the one hand, there are rooms revolving around individual artists, such as Gorky, Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning. On the other, a handful of rooms are dedicated to specific themes, such as Colour, Violence, and Darkness. I found the dialogue between these two approaches (focusing now on artists now on themes) a fruitful one. More than anything, it allows the visitors not only to fully appreciate the production of individual artists independent of each other, but also to create connections between them, mapping their (sometimes real-life) relationships and mutual influences.
The VIPs of Abstract Expressionism are all there, and so is their sheer variety of styles. Gorky’s works are tormented and compelling, informed by Cubism and Surrealism and responsive to the avant-gardes, but at the same time incredibly distinctive. Apparently consisting of random shapes, they have philosophical as well as personal significance. His ‘Diary of a Seducer’ (1945), for instance, makes specific reference to a work by the existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.
De Kooning’s artworks, especially his earlier ones, speak of eroticism and morbid fascination with the female body. In his production, painting becomes a cathartic and purifying practice, an almost psychoanalytic way to process feelings, resulting in fleshy, tactile canvases.
Pollock’s signature style, famous for its epic dimensions and gestural dynamism, creates labyrinths of bodily rhythms or, as he used to say, is ‘energy and motion made visible’. My favourite piece by him was ‘Summertime: Number 9A’ (1948), where I thought the balance between full and empty was optimal.
Jackson Pollock, ‘Summertime: Number 9A’ (detail) (1948)
Rothko’s works are, in many ways, the opposite. Colours do not boldly come out of his canvases, but rather recede into them, creating surfaces of flat, and yet palpitating colours. Rothko’s paintings, in curator’s David Anfam’s poignant words, ‘epitomise the perennial quest to formulate abstract embodiments of powerful human feelings’. We are talking about hovering colours, almost coming alive in order to interact with the viewers, enthralling them through their ‘enigmatic hypnotism’ (Anfam again). The magic of Rothko eludes one-way readings. While my friend and I were both admiring one of his later works, made of two large bright red rectangles surrounded by a black border, he turned to me and said: ‘It’s so depressing, isn’t it?’. I was astounded: on me, the painting was having a calm-inducing, almost reassuring effect. He said he saw the black edges as taking over the other colours, devouring them as it were. To me, it looked like the colours were finding their way out of the darkness, breaking free form it. I guess this is exactly the magic of Rothko’s art.
Mark Rothko, ‘No. 14 (Red, Blue Over Black)’ (1960)
The thematic rooms match the sheer variety of the artists’ ones. In ‘Gesture as Colour’, (which I found a little vague as a title), the art-scene of the American West coast is explored, with artists such as Clyfford Still, Mark Tobey (and his arresting ‘Parnassus’ , packed with Classical references), and Janet Sobel. The room called ‘The Violent Mark’ showcases the dichromatic works by Kline, labelled ‘colliding configurations and violent imbalance’ by the curator. Barnett Newmann and Ad Reinhardt are dedicated their own gallery focusing on the more radical ramifications of Abstract Expressionism, leading to informal abstraction and chromatic absolutism. Interestingly, a whole room is devoted to works on paper and photography, but virtually no photographs of the artists at work are shown. In an era where photography was largely available, and in an artistic movement which emphasises the prominence of gesture, I think there could have been perhaps more photos of artists busy at work.
Even sculptures manages to sneak into an exhibition that is overly focused on paintings. Entering the Annenberg Courtyard, visitors are greeted by David Smith’s abstract sculptures, which feature also in many of the galleries. His rising forms are meant to evoke the human presence and architecture, but to me they spoke more of action and motion. I could totally imagine a piece of contemporary dance responding to these large sculptures, which are so imbued with inner movement and rhythm. Semi-sculptural was also Louise Nevelson’s ‘Sky Cathedral’ (1957-60). A sculpture to be seen as a painting, the work collates together different objects in wood, all painted in black. The result is an articulation of the rhythms of flatness, which I thought conveyed brilliantly the exploration of shape and movement typical of Abstract Expressionism. In spite of not being strictly essential to the success of the exhibition, the presence of sculpture reminds one that abstraction can take many forms, and can resonate across different media.
Louise Nevelson, ‘Sky Cathedral’ (1958)
This Royal Academy exhibition is revelatory and sublime. It is a precious collation of abstract works, elucidated with the acumen and art-historical excellence of the curator. ‘Abstract Expressionism’ is as dense as a Pollock mural, vibrant with colour like a Hofmann, and thought-provoking in an almost spiritual way like a Rothko.