The Fire Lit Within: Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy

The blockbuster Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy is the largest exhibition of its kind in the UK for six decades.


When writing about those artists designated the Abstract Expressionists, there is always a danger that one can suddenly find oneself no longer talking about the formal aesthetic qualities of the artworks, nor even the artworks’ collective cultural relevance, but rather about the individuals themselves – their egos, their drinking habits, their suicides. Inadvertently, the emphasis shifts from the art they produced to detailed accounts of the lives they lived. This shift in emphasis is perfectly understandable: many were iconoclastic individuals, the time they lived in – from the beginning of World War I to the end of the Cold War – was tumultuous and dramatic, their deaths were often, sadly, tragic.

Be that as it may, the striking thing about this exhibition – the largest retrospective of Abstract Expressionism seen by the UK for almost six decades – is that as you walk from room to room, everything not directly conveyed or addressed in the artworks themselves, there before you, becomes completely irrelevant. These are powerful, imaginative, aesthetically daring works of art. Their magnitude is not just one of scale – though size is frequently a collaborative factor in the lasting impression they make – but one of sheer creative vision. Many pieces, more than seems likely or even possible (more than one could ever anticipate), display the inherent incandescence, the fire lit within, which one associates with great works of art.

After the first room – both a general introduction to the thematic concerns of Abstract Expressionism and a demonstration of various early works (my favourite: Mark Rothko’s self-portrait from 1936) – you enter a room dedicated to the Armenian-born Arshile Gorky. This exhibition cements Gorky’s role as an artist that both prefigured and contributed to the Abstract Expressionist movement, and whose work had a profound effect on Willem de Kooning, proving to be a key influence on the latter’s artistic development. Gorky was a student of the Surrealist and Cubist schools, and the effect of these visual dialects & their attendant principles on his work is plain to see. Yet Gorky, while strongly adoptive, extemporised upon these themes so creatively that he generated a style uniquely his own. Though his graphites are beautiful, and the strident Water of the Flowery Mill (1944) is a mature and arresting piece, his later works are what will capture your attention. Two in particular, echoes of one another, display his genius: Diary of a Seducer (1945) and The Limit (1947). The former is a highly inventive monochrome abstract of a party scene, while the latter may be one of the best paintings in the entire exhibition. Composed predominantly in shades of green-grey, sparsely interrupted by splashes of vibrant colour, the figures depicted seem geometrical in intent but the activity of their forms, their outlines etc., are imprecise, often blurred or furry, and similarly they are without content, empty, suggesting incompletion: they disappear under their own already-insubstantial weight. The minimal lyricism of these two pieces speaks to an uncompromising and highly attuned sensitivity, prevalent throughout the entire exhibition, to the potency of bare shape and form, of severe arrangements without embellishment.

The third room belongs to Pollock, and is (of course) one of the biggest spaces dedicated to a single artist. The most intriguing curatorial decision lies at the end of the room, where the audience is presented with a dyad: on one wall is hung his breakthrough piece Mural (1943), the early Pollock drawing on his love of the Mexican muralists Orozco, Riviera etc., and on the opposing wall is his Blue Poles (1952), a painting of similar gargantuan proportions, accomplished at the height of his career. The presentation of this binary works well, it discloses eloquently the transformation Pollock’s painting underwent in the near-decade that separates the two works, an important reminder that even artists with signature styles as unique as Pollock change and grow their practice.  Other notable pieces include No. 7 (1950), Horizontal Composition (1949) and Summertime: Number 9A (1948), each of which highlight an often overlooked preoccupation of Pollock’s: his engagement with horizontality. These linearly expansive works encourage close inspection – the closer one gets, the more completely these works fill one’s peripheral vision. Considered in conjunction with the layering typical of Pollock’s ‘action-painting’ aesthetic, this horizontal distension creates a sense of localized infinity, an impression that what one perceives is only a fraction of a far larger work, as though peering into space. In addition, the sizable width (Summertime is 18 foot wide) provides a variation on the sense of movement and thrown-ness Pollock’s style is famous for producing: as one’s eye moves back and forth along the same axis, these horizontals suggest linear speed and recurring motion, producing a sensation not unlike that of watching a train race past a station, if you imagine the train never ending.   

After Pollock the exhibition opens up: on one side is the room entitled ‘Gesture as Colour’ and on the other side is the room dedicated to Mark Rothko. Rothko’s room is as you might expect: lowly lit and circular, it displays his looming colour fields perfectly. In ‘Gesture as Colour’, you are confronted by work produced by less well known artists associated with the movement. Helen Frankenthaler, a young proponent of Abstract Expressionism (belonging to the group’s ‘second generation’), is represented by her Europa (1957), a compelling study in washed-out, diaphanous oils, bringing a lightness and colourful fluidity into a show that focuses for the most part on dense and heavy abstractions. Sam Francis’ Untitled (1956) and Janet Sobel’s Illusion of Solidity (1945) also merit attention, each conveying a strong sense of authorial intent – a singularity of vision – more readily associated with their better known contemporaries. Francis’ evocative untitled work is the best of his three displayed; a remarkable amalgam of red, yellow, dark blue, black and white panels that bleed into and pulse with one another, seeming to disappear into the distance as one’s eye travels downwards, inviting a relative viewpoint uncommon to pure abstracts. Sobel’s work doesn’t express a narrative; it functions rather as a pure miasma, a squeamishly coloured hallucination caged by organic wire.

In the room entitled ‘The Violent Mark’, Franz Kline’s presence is most acute, his studies in white and black (such as Vawdavitch [1955]) teetering constantly between brutal interrogation of form on the one hand and contemplation/meditation on the other. This interplay segues nicely into the room dedicated to de Kooning, who, along with Pollock and Rothko, formed the beating heart that propelled this movement to international fame. De Kooning’s work travels equally between abstraction and figuration, in a manner frequently cited to echo fellow Expressionist Philip Guston, though in this exhibition the artistic parallel one might be incited to make is with that other, great abstract figurist Francis Bacon, a parallel especially apt of paintings such as Pink Angels (1945). De Kooning’s quote “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented” further invites the Bacon comparison, whose depictions of contorted bodies prompted the philosopher Gilles Deleuze to write “In meat, the flesh seems to descend from the bones, while the bones rise up from the flesh.” (Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, 1981: p.22) De Kooning’s female studies Woman (1949-50), Woman II (1952) and Woman as Landscape (of which there are two variations, one from 1955, the other from 1965) are further examples of the artist’s pursuit of an aestheticized and carnal body. Departing from this theme, the room also holds his Dark Pond (1948), an early work that, fittingly, looks like a cross-section of black ice, and Villa Borghese (1960), a hulking composition that retains a comic or clownish element, due to the bright and combative colour selection.

The rooms ‘Works on Paper and Photography’ and ‘Darkness Visible’ are enjoyable but somewhat functional, the former having more historical significance than aesthetic, while the latter is arguably surplus to requirements, displaying artworks that easily could have been incorporated elsewhere.

The rooms dedicated to Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman and to Clyfford Still are possibly the most important rooms in the exhibition, and their displays are worth the price of admission alone. In fact, I would be very surprised if most people visiting the exhibition did not consider the collection of Still’s work, in the second to last room, their favourite. The room, almost the same size as Pollock’s, is a total show-stealer. Clyfford Still, a name I admit (with embarrassment) was unknown to me before I attended the exhibition, did not belong to the core of Expressionists who called New York home. Still, born in North Dakota, spent the last two decades of his life living on a farm in Maryland, and the reason for his doing so is abundantly clear to those that have seen (or more accurately, ‘witnessed’) his artwork. These are truly mammoth paintings, their composition – unlike those mentioned of Pollock’s – emphatically vertical. The exhibition makes much of this verticality, stating that Still “associated verticality with the upright living being and spiritual transcendence”. Transcendence is a strong word to use, whatever the context, but here it captures very precisely the sense of deep-reality expressed in each of Still’s canvasses. Through these paintings, borne from the wide, open vistas of the American west, we get a glimpse into a landscape that rises like a melody. Take PH-950 (1950), an exemplary Still: you stand before an expanse of mustard yellow that curls and twists like fire, your eye-line directed upwards (as ever) at what seems to be a twilit sky, barely visible through a swarthy black that dominates the upper quadrant of the painting; a collective silhouette of towering fir trees. Still (in this exhibition at least), more so than his peers, instils one with that which is so often referenced but very rarely experienced in art: a sense of the sublime. Beyond the striking visual configurations – the jagged and irregular shapes of an abstract nature – Still’s colour palette is always sparse and provocative, drawing heavily upon clashes in contrast. If you have never seen a painting by Clyfford Still, this exhibition gives you an amazing opportunity unlikely to be repeated.

The last room ‘Late Works’ is a good conclusion, and especially noteworthy is Guston’s Low Tide (1976) which shocked the art world with a return to figurate representation. To close this review, however, I will focus on the Reinhardt and Newman room. Ad Reinhardt, an American of German extract, and Barnett Newman, son of Jewish-Polish immigrants, each in their own way pursued the aesthetic dialectic inherent in Abstract Expressionism to its ultimate conclusion. Taken together, their work ‘completes’ the trajectory begun with Gorky’s late work and which found its mature expression in de Kooning, Rothko, Pollock et al (and, to a lesser extent, the second generation they inspired). This aesthetic dialectic – the same one I referenced in relation to Gorky’s The Limit – involves the tension between form and presentation, between determination and spontaneity, between the seen and the made. This tension is never resolved (resolution is not easy to find in art), but is simply staged by the artworks themselves; two irreducible aesthetic concerns equally affirmed, each – when taken to extreme – the negative of the other. Newman’s mature work – such as Midnight Blue (1970) and Eve (1950) – are called ‘zips’ because they depict chromatic blocks striated, bisected or framed by narrow and vertical lines, and they inhabit a similar aesthetic space to Rothko’s paintings, but whereas the latter’s work impresses one with a sense of psychological inexorability, of a presence disappearing only to be reborn in the very same instant, Newman’s geometric pieces are surgical and distant, cold like starlight. Reinhardt takes this minimal aesthetic even further, evident in his ‘ultimate painting’ artworks Abstract Painting (1956) and Abstract Painting, No. 23 (1963). These pieces may appear to be black from a distance, but get up close and you will see that they are composed of almost-indiscernible tones of blue, red and green, in subtle block formations (as in a grid). They are entirely hypnotic and Reinhardt painted them one after another over the space of twenty years, convinced that he had produced the last conceivable permutation in form of the abstract painting.

The alignment of Reinhardt and Newman’s work is – not temporally, but logically  the apotheosis of the aesthetic tension fundamental to the members of this movement. Insofar as they brought this logic to its climax, they also ‘finished’ it: an incubation brought to life is also, so to speak, a death. By completing the circle they closed it: apotheosis becomes – is retroactively posited as already – an aporia. Beyond this point, no more can be said.

Abstract Expressionism continues at the Royal Academy until January 2 2017. Tickets are £17 (£16 seniors, £12 concessions).

Tom Lordan

About Thomas Lordan

Tom Lordan is an Irish writer and philosopher, currently living in the UK. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin and Kingston University, he completed his Masters thesis under the supervision of Catherine Malabou. He is a member of the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP). Awarded the Philosophy Department‘s scholarship, he studies at Warwick University since October.

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