October 10, 2016

Ab Ex at the R.A.

It may seem odd to visit an exhibition of a quintessentially American art movement in a foreign capital, but sometimes a fresh perspective makes one appreciate the familiar just that much more.  Such is certainly the case with the blockbuster show "Abstract Expressionism" that opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on September 24.

Arshile Gorky "Water of the Flowery Mill", 1944

Abstract Expressionism came into being in New York in the 1940s when a group of artists broke from the traditional, European-based tenets of painting and began to create works in an entirely different way.  Similar to the Dadaists' reaction to the horrors of The Great War, this group of avant garde artists, both native born and emigres, felt compelled to upend the conventional wisdom of pre-World War II modernism and invent a completely new language.

The result was Abstract Expressionism, a radical approach to every aspect of art as historically realized, from the subject to the relationship with the viewer to the basic act of painting.  The effect was seismic and it effected the previously unimaginable shift of the center of the art world from Paris to New York.

Despite its importance in American and indeed global art history, the Royal Academy's exhibition is the first comprehensive survey of the movement since 1959.  And they did it in style.  This show is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view rarely seen masterpieces from collections around the world.  Like, for example, the presence of not one but two of Jackson Pollack's most famous paintings - the recently restored "Mural" commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 and now held by the University of Iowa's Museum of Art...

Hanging just across the gallery is one of my personal favorites, "Blue Poles", 1952, which traveled half way around the world from its home in Canberra at the National Gallery of Australia, to be shown in Europe...

These two paintings epitomize the principals of the Abstract Expressionist movement.  First, they are monumental in scale.  Measuring 6.5 and 5.3 yards across, respectively, the size alone has an initial impact on the viewer.  Second, they are "all over" paintings with no central focal point but an all-encompassing "image".  Third, the artist painted them using newly invented techniques of paint application.  Both were painted on the floor, as opposed to on an easel, and in the case of "Blue Poles", Jackson Pollack employed what became his signature "drip" style - literally pouring and spraying paint onto the canvas.

Another remarkable loan came from the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado.  Though a founding member and one of the most recognizable artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Still was famously anti-commercial and very few of his works were put on the market.  Today the majority of his works are held by his eponymous museum and are rarely on view except in rotating in-house exhibitions.  It was therefore a huge and happy surprise to enter a gallery at the Royal Academy dedicated to Clyfford Still and filled with some of his most magnificent works.

Clyfford Still "PH-950", 1950

Still another highlight was the amazing group of paintings by the Latvian-born artist, Mark Rothko.  Assembled in a round room, in a reference to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, these large format, intensely hued canvases envelope the viewer in emotion and feeling.  Typical of Abstract Expressionism, these works are all-over images that demand attention and create a dialogue between artist and observer.

Mark Rothko "Red Yellow Red"

Some of the galleries were devoted to one artist like Gorky, Pollock, Rothko, Still and De Kooning.

Willem De Kooning "Woman II", 1952

While others presented a theme or compare-and-contrast like Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt.

Barnett Newman "Profile of Light", 1967
 Ad Reinhardt "Untitled", c. 1966

Interspersed throughout were metal sculptures by David Smith, not a painter but definitely a member of the group, that provided an interesting counterpoint to all those big pictures.

David Smith "Blackburn, Song of an Irish Blacksmith", 1949-50

I had been looking forward to seeing this exhibition and it lived up to expectations and then some.  It's only too bad that one has to cross the Atlantic to find such an insightful and comprehensive perspective of this uniquely American movement.

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