Abstract Expressionism at the RA 2016: An Extended Essay

Abstract Expressionism at The Royal Academy is an ambitious show by any measure. It is the first of its kind in the UK for over half a century to examine this expansive movement and attempts to transcend many of the long held assumptions about the aims of the artists and nature of their work. The exhibition runs from the 24th of September to the 2nd of January 2017 and brings together over 150 of the most significant artworks by well known artists like Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, Clifford Still and Barnett Newman, as well as those less familiar, in order to tell the story in depth. This again is no mean feat because these are among the most important paintings of the 20th century and just getting them in one place is an achievement in itself.

The group who became known as ‘Abstract Expressionists’ had much in common, even if their works actually ended up looking very different. All shared a desire to express, through varied abstract form, the inner terrain of the artist. To push abstract art as far as possible. They emerged after the Second World War in a United States coming to terms with its new position as the predominant global power. The moniker, coined by the Critic Robert Coates in 1946 and by which they would be forever known- like so many in art- can only superficially describe the full extent of their activities. However, the results of their working would go on to influence artists all over the world, forever changing the nature of painting and our conception of it.

If you follow the news you might see their paintings change hands for tens of millions of pounds. But what is the true significance today of these works, other than as very expensive objects of status? Why were the Abstract Expressionists so important in the history of 20th century art and what were their artistic innovations? Is it even possible to define the group as a unified ‘movement’ in the same way, for example as Cubism, with shared aims and objectives?

Beginnings & Influences

To start at the beginning, we must really consider the first human who ever made their mark. When the nomadic peoples who occupied a place decided, for whatever reason, to leave a trace in the rocks, on the land. To record their fleeting presence in the form of a handprint or an indentation. An imprint created to express something from within. Perhaps something that could not be verbalised.

A part of human evolution is the progress of art. All societies without exception have needed to express, through art, aspects of their lives. To ask questions beyond their immediate existence. For reasons of faith, 20,000 years ago, Palaeolithic peoples would sprinkle red ochre on their dead before burial. Early artists would adorn inaccessible caves with exquisitely rendered animals, showing the creatures whom they hunted, feared or worshipped. In their eyes, recording at the same time something of the animal’s spiritual ‘essence’.

Later on, exquisitely decorated and highly symbolic grave goods were fashioned to communicate or serve in the afterlife. They were then placed out of reach of living humans; a message for that which lies beyond this life.

Before artistic expression became codified, art was a spontaneous manifestation that was part of life, to facilitate life. To convey, by the most direct means possible, the primal nature of human beings.

The development of oil as an artists’ medium gave rise to new and hitherto unattainable levels of creative freedom. Among others, JMW Turner and Claude Monet were both able to push oil paint to new levels of expression and refinement. In their different ways, they were part of a movement in western art to free it from the tyranny of ‘finish’. To explore the expressive possibilities of paint beyond the creation of pictorial illusion. Both also had the facility to observe the world and interpret its complexity through art, so as to evoke heightened emotional experiences. In order to capture such things, these artists would go to extremes. Turner’s famous tale of being tied to the mast in a storm, enabled the artist to ‘feel’ the weather he was responding to in his painting. Or Monet painting his wife on her deathbed. To communicate using paint that which is inexpressible by any other means, which was also a feature of Postimpressionism.

Abstract Expressionism has generally been seen as an East Coast phenomenon; fed by an influx of European avant-garde artists and intellectuals, fleeing the Second World War. But as this exhibition seeks to prove, there was so much more to the movement. On the other side of the US, artists were producing equally innovative work. And eventually, the developments that were made by the group, permeated back over the Atlantic to inform a new generation of artists.

Clement Greenberg was the critic and theorist most associated with establishing the core ‘principles’ of Abstract Expressionism. Significantly and simply put, he believed the history of modern painting had been a move away from representation towards an exploration of the possibilities of the two dimensional picture plane. Intimate with the artists associated with the movement, Greenberg’s interpretation of their work became gospel for many years and much of it still holds value. However in recent years, the basis of his theories have been questioned and reevaluated. Which is why this exhibition is about time, so as to hopefully reveal in the wake of new research, some truth from the hype.

The movement achieved great success very early on thanks to a number of factors. But it’s interesting to consider that whatever the reasons for this, these were very individual and complicated artists who could hardly be described as your ‘ Average American’. Formed and tempered by the Depression and New Deal, several had radical and Left wing political views that wouldn’t exactly have fitted nicely into the contemporary Macarthyite worldview. The truth is that they were outsiders from mainstream society.

In the early postwar ideological struggle between the American concept of ‘democracy’ and that of ‘export’ Russian Communism, art and culture were seen by many in the West as essential in demonstrating the continued superiority of the Capitalist system. Indeed, there were genuine fears about the perception of Communism to people around the world and at home, in a global economic climate of austerity and recovery. Could it catch on? This fear became even more acute when the American economy took a turn for the worst in the late forties.

Therefore, in order to highlight the cultural and spiritual wellbeing of the nation, an effort was made to promote art with a distinctly ‘home grown’ American flavour, yet as informed and sophisticated as that produced in Europe- seen by many as the epitome of artistic achievement. In retrospect of course, this spoke volumes about how America viewed itself, as in some way culturally inferior and a view held pretty much throughout its relatively short history as a nation. But for how much longer?

In 1958, ‘The New American Painting’ exhibition brought together the work of the Abstract Expressionists and took it from the lofts and galleries where it was seen by a relative few, on a tour of the great art cities of Europe. Jackson Pollock was on the cover of ‘Life’ Magazine and the feature inside did a great deal to place him in the public imagination as a new kind of ‘American’ artist. Part Brando, part Hemingway, ‘Jack The Dripper’ suddenly found himself an art celebrity at the head of a new and dynamic art movement.

Abstract Expressionism also marked the cultural shift of the centre of Modern Art away from Paris to New York. During WW2, a number of significant artists had fled the Nazi occupation and ended up in the US. In particular New York. Mondrian and many prominent members of the Surrealist movement became residents and a large number of important works of art were saved from almost certain destruction, thanks to forward thinking curators like Peggy Guggenheim- soon to be one of the most important figures in promoting the new art. More about her in a bit.

Pablo Picasso was the most significant single artist to influence the development of Abstract Expressionism. Through Cubism and into the twenties and thirties, the Spanish Master paved the way for most of the artists we will consider in this essay. The themes and preoccupations that would come to be associated with the movement would have been unthinkable without Picasso’s experiments in art from forty years earlier. In terms of the development of techniques, subject matter and concepts, there is nobody more important.

There were many other influences on the emergent movement.

For those interested, here quickly are a few. The artist and theorist Hans Hofmann was a teacher and mentor to several who would later be seen as Abstract Expressionists. His progressive teaching, influenced by Modernism, led many artists to some place beyond the prevailing Realist and Regionalist concerns of American art during the 30s. Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell were his students.

Another influence on the movement was the Mural painting of Diego Rivera. More in terms of its large scale, then any specific political content. During the 1930s, many of the artists who would later become known as exponents of Abstract Expressionism had attended the Art Students’ League in New York. Here they were exposed to new and imported artistic ideas, by many of the emigre artists previously mentioned, as well as some forward thinking home grown teachers. Also, certain individuals had been part of Roosevelt’s Federal Arts Programme during the Depression. They had worked, often collectively, on large scale murals and had seen how government sponsorship could promote progressive ideas. It is also worth noting the significance of Eastern thought and philosophy on the development of the fledgling Abstract Expressionists.

Piet Mondrian had been one of those emigres. He loved New York and the city’s design certainly informed his last works. Another less well known fact about him was that he was a significant influence on many of the emerging Abstract Expressionists. His painting had emphasised, arguably more directly than any of his contemporaries, the primacy of the two dimensional surface. Mondrian had reduced the elements of his paintings down to flat angular blocks of primary colour, which were arranged on a white surface. A surface that was itself painted on the canvas- nothing was arbitrary. The way each ‘block’ interrelated to the others on the picture surface or to the white areas was through a ‘grid’. A matrix that ‘held’ each colour in harmony with the others on the canvas and balanced the overall composition. Mondrian believed that these harmonious relationships would somehow permeate out into the world so as to create equilibrium. As we shall see, all of these ideas would inform the development of Abstract Expressionism.

In addition to Mondrian are the formative influences of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Both worked closely at the Bauhaus, where they published books about many of their ideas and approaches to art. Klee created his own mythologies in many of his delicate watercolours and mixed media pieces. Like the artists who became Abstract Expressionists, he experimented with and developed many techniques and processes. In their mystery and allusions to poetry and literature, his works emphasised the primacy of the imagination in art, combined with a heightened degree of observation and sense of wit. You can see Kandinsky’s hand in every area of Abstract Expressionism, from the different forms of abstract composition, mark making and texture, to the flat areas of colour and complex geometries that extend across the picture surfaces. In his first (arguably the first ever) purely abstract works, the ‘Improvisations’.

Hyman Bloom was also a significant precursor to the movement and acknowledged as such by Pollock and De Kooning. He was a member of the ‘Boston Expressionist’ school, that were active into the 50s. Talking cues from the work of James Ensor and particularly Chaim Soutine; who’s subjects also were often related to death or decay. Bloom experimented with mixed media in his paintings, as well as using the material of paint itself to express feeling. He also shared similar spiritual preoccupations with certain Abstract Expressionists; including an interest in Eastern Philosophy.

Although they remain figurative, many of Bloom’s paintings possess the mystery and expressive daring of the Abstract Expressionists. They also share many key features, such as the ‘all over’ coverage approach, that will be examined in detail. However, he himself saw in their abstract art an “emotional catharsis, with no intellectual basis.”

But as we shall see, it was the legacy of Surrealism that would have the most profound influence on the emerging Abstract Expressionists.

Joan Miro’s fertile and feverish imagination allowed him to produce works that are visually innovative and poetically charged in equal measure. The range of mixed media he explored and enhanced is too wide to detail here, but the Abstract Expressionists picked up and adopted many of these. Also- perhaps even more significantly- Miro’s ability to reduce and distort complex forms to biomorphic shapes of incomparable power of expression, was a major development not just in terms of Abstract Expressionism, but in the overall history of art. Something of course shared with his fellow Spaniard Pablo Picasso.

Andre Masson took the concept of ‘Automatism’ further in his art to produce drawings of intensity and savagery. In his mixed media work, we are face to face with the edges of control, in which a dark poetry emerges from somewhere within the unconscious mind.

The curators of the exhibition have successfully grouped the work so as to present the coherent evolution of the movement. So we start in Room 1 with an ‘Introduction and Early Work’. Some rooms explore just one or two artists. Pollock has Room 3, whilst Rothko has Room 7. But Room 5 for example explores ‘The Violent Mark’. Or in Room 4 ‘Gesture As Colour’. Both major preoccupations of the Abstract Expressionists. In Room 9, we consider existential themes in ‘Darkness Visible’.

All in all, the 12 rooms of the exhibition brilliantly present the genesis, evolution and culmination of the movement. The RA also managed to distribute the art evenly, giving each adequate ‘room to breathe’. The lighting was muted, which was probably to safeguard the priceless works on display. However, to my eyes (probably need new glasses) it was sometimes difficult to make out details.

The Artists

Peggy Guggenheim, thanks to sound advice from Mondrian in 1943, signed Jackson Pollock and commissioned a huge mural from him. This vast canvas (the largest produced by the artist at 8′ 1 1/4″ x 19′ 10″) was painted in a frenetic rush around New Years Day of 1944 and is prominently displayed in the exhibition. One cannot overestimate the importance of this work, both in terms of the artist’s own further development and as a thrown down gauntlet to other painters.

In ‘Mural’, Pollock was beginning the process of removing the signs and symbols that had been a central part of his earlier work, which had shown the influence of Picasso. An example of this is ‘Male and Female’ (from 1942 and also on display in the show). The scale of it stands out as does its relationship to Picasso’s ‘Three Dancers’ (1925) with its Surrealist overtones and references to Manet. But this painting is packed with references to figures, symbols and even numbers, in marked contrast to the sinuous, serpentine lines of ‘Mural’, which is devoid of anything that could be described as ‘representational’. It is fascinating to think that only two years separate these works.

Some time later, Pollock said something about the inspiration that preceded the creation of ‘Mural’. That he had a vision: “It was a stampede…(of) every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface.” Anecdotal perhaps, but evocative of the way the rhythmic marks lead the eye across the painting.

The scale of ‘Mural’ demonstrated Pollock’s audacity in wanting to make a bold visual statement, as well as his attempt to shift the focus of painting towards a uniform coverage: filling the entire picture plane, so that no specific area was any more or less important and thereby moving it’s emphasis away from traditional concepts of foreground, mid-ground and background. A significant development in terms of advancing beyond linear perspective, which had been a recurring preoccupation of Modern Art.

Equally important, Pollock was developing a gestural, lyrical style of painting that moved beyond conventional brushwork; requiring him to utilise sticks and a mixture of household and industrial paints, in preference to traditional artists’ materials. By an impasto ‘layering’ process, he was able to build up intense, complex surfaces. He called this ‘Action Painting’ and it was a technique developed from a number of sources. I think he learned something from Oriental Calligraphy in terms of ‘gesture’, as well as artists like Miro, Masson and the ‘Automatist’ school of Surrealist painting.

Pollock gradually refined this process of paint application which enabled him to achieve an unprecedented degree of lyrical expression. By thinning the paint and allowing it to drip from the end of a stick, a brush or by pouring it from a can on to the surface, he was able to create complex and delicate structures that reflected patterns found in nature. Like Masson, but to a greater extent, this technique allowed him to incorporate the element of chance into the process.

Also, by letting the paint act in accordance with its natural physical inclinations when applied to the flat surface and than hanging it up dry, Pollocks’ work undermined another powerful assumption at the heart of western pictorial tradition. To challenge the notion that paint should create the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. This idea was one of the basic tenants of modern painting, seen as an inevitable development, according to the critic and Abstract Expressionism’s leading theorist, Clement Greenberg. Post Impressionism and Cubism- among other movements- had achieved the initial break with this tradition; as had Kandinsky and Mondrian, who moved beyond it into pure abstraction. But they all still painted using conventional methods of application. Pollock however abandoned both, in favour of an exploration of the two dimensional picture surface, one could almost say by ‘guiding’ the paint on to it. Utilising it’s unpredictable nature in counterpoint to his own gestural dexterity. Thus, he ushered in a whole new territory for artists to traverse.

If we consider Jackson Pollock’s transition away from the influence of his teacher Thomas Hart Benton, through to where his work ended up, we get a picture of just how much many of these artists shifted from their origins. Benton was associated with the Regionalist movement, who’s adherents sought to portray ordinary American life in the Midwest and Deep South, around the time of the Great Depression. Grant Wood of ‘American Gothic’ fame was also a member. They was a pretty conservative school of art that rejected most tenants of European- especially French- Modernism, in favour of a kind of heroic Realism. However the scale of Pollock’s ‘Mural’ owes something to Benton, who was his teacher at the Art Students League of New York from 1926 to 1935; even though by the time he painted it, the artist had moved far beyond the style and preoccupations of Regionalism. The fact is, Pollock actually felt Benton’s teaching had given him ‘something to rebel against’. Also for ‘Mural’, in terms of scale, the artist learned a great deal from the traditions of Mexican Mural Painting. Something that was also important to the work of the Regionalists.

From the mid 40s, Pollock explored and developed his new approach to painting, which become ever more intricate, layered and refined. He aimed at something vigorous and one could argue, more in touch with elemental forces of nature and the cosmos. He would lay out his canvases on the ground, often outside, in order to work on them, echoing Navaho Sand Art. Moving away from general European conventions about easel painting, and in keeping with the notion that the artist should be a ‘part’ of the image, rather than looking through a ‘window’. That also meant that there could be no generalised ‘up’ or ‘down’, left or right. The artist would decide the picture’s orientation (it wouldn’t be enforced by the arbitrary position of the easel). That the very making would determine the outcome of a work of art in a new and more spontaneous way. Another consequence was that the act of Painting itself would become more a physical and intuitive activity, rather than a static, contemplative pursuit. In this exhibition, opposite ‘Mural’; we see ‘Blue Poles’ and the Tate’s ‘Summertime’ that take these tendencies to a logical conclusion.

‘Blue Poles’ (Number 11) from 1952, illustrates just how innovative Pollock’s work had become by the early fifties in terms of composition. The ‘poles’ that sit on the surface of the painting, simultaneously divide the picture plane to create a visual rhythm and act to enliven and contrast the complex lyrical painting underneath. It is interesting to consider the role colour plays in this work. Pollock uses quite pure, almost ‘tasteful’ colours that often remain distinct from each other. But mixing does take place, sometimes as colours blend when wet on the picture surface, adding extra visual drama and looking as if they haven’t even dried out yet.

In ‘Summertime’ (Number 9A), painted in 1948, we see a composition that resembles some form of rhythmic calligraphy. Unlike ‘Blue Poles’, this work is less dependant on multiple layers. Rather, any illusion of ‘depth’ is created by sophisticated application of the paint onto the bare canvas. In other words, its all in the eye and it’s connection to the wrist. In fact, this action doesn’t require him even to touch the canvas, as the paint is dripped onto it and allowed to settle. He may have moved the canvas, walked around it and added colour where necessary, but never allowed the essential ‘rhythmic’ flow to be compromised.

The overall effect of Pollocks’ work is a mixture of primordial drama and spontaneous elaboration. A mix however that tapped into the public imagination, if not exactly affection. He arguably became the most famous artist in America during his short lifetime (he died, James Dean like in a car crash in 1956) and despite his alcoholism, with money and connections (thanks in no small part to Peggy Guggenhiem), he was able to set up home and studio in Long Island, to focus on his work. Together with his wife Lee Krasner, who during this period, despite being an artist herself, sublimated her talent to his.

Krasner’s work has often been overlooked, but now she’s enjoying something of a renaissance. During her time with Pollock, she worked on what became known as her ‘Little’ Images. The complexity of intricate layered symbols that make up many of her (comparatively few) pictures, echo written forms that are quite flat and densely packed, giving an almost opaque quality to the work. I find mystery at the heart of it.

There is also on display ‘The Eye is the First Circle’ from 1960.

This comparatively large painting explores the act of seeing- a preoccupation of Krasner- and has a dynamism reminiscent of Futurism. In it’s form, limited palette and expressive brushwork, the image and technique are suggestive of Masson. Krasner was plagued by insomnia at this time and like the Surrealist, she worked feverishly at night, on what became known as her ‘Umber Series’. This painting resembles a landscape, but one suggestive of eyes looking back through the maelstrom. There’s no doubt in my mind that Krasner was influenced by her husband in terms of technique, but of course influence can go in both directions.

She was by all accounts a highly disciplined and self critical artist. Unfortunately for posterity, she destroyed many of her works. Those that survive are often mixed with fragments of other work, that she cut up and incorporated into new paintings.

It is usually the case when writing about art to avoid wherever possible the subjective response. But with Mark Rothko’s work, this is actually quite difficult, as people tend to have very personal responses to his paintings. Rothko’s work from 1950 onwards in particular has long divided opinion. Some value what he did and ‘get’ it right away. Others fail to see what all the fuss is about.

In this exhibition, Rothko’s work is displayed in several places, including a room of its own. His paintings communicate on a number of levels. On the one hand, it has an immediate, often overwhelming effect on the spectator. But It is simultaneously ‘slow burn’. Living with the work and taking it in as part of our everyday lives, will enrich us. Rothko called his images ‘Facades’- an expression with multiple layers of meaning.

Rothko’s mature work was the culmination of a slow evolution, growing in size, scale and confidence. He had taken his art through several distinct phases, eventually arriving at Surrealism. All this time he was developing and refining a delicate yet subtle painting technique. An early work on show at the beginning of the exhibition has the appearance of a Morandi still life, but the apparent subjects are fragile, vulnerable looking and lacking structure or substance. They appear to be dissolving before our eyes. This picture may not present a direct indication of where Rothko was to go, but it does suggest aspects of it.

Together with Adolph Gottlieb, he worked on paintings that aimed to find meaning in archaic sources and myths. Eventually however, after breaking with the Surrealists and moving towards an abstract art he hoped capable of expressing pure emotion, Rothko said “We favour the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” The adoption and development of purely abstract fields of colour owes something to Clyfford Still, but by the time of this late work, he had found his own voice.

In addition to thin oils, he often used a translucent watercolour technique called Aquarelle, to gradually build up images. Rothko’s sketchbooks are revealing of this direction. A digression perhaps, but it’s interesting to note just how significant watercolour and other opaque painting techniques were to many of the Abstract Expressionists.

One painting on display is No.1 ‘White and Red’ from 1962, which I found particularly moving. Like so many of Rothko’s works, understanding it requires a lengthy contemplation. Few clues are to be found in the merely descriptive title. The three opaque, foggy-edged rectangles seem to float on a deep black background. A prominent white layer dominates the top of the canvas and generally stands out as its most dynamic feature, even though it is slightly smaller than those below it. The middle red band dominates the painting, close to the picture plane and reinforces the stability of the overall composition. Beneath is a recessional brown form, muted to the point of disappearance, that is counterpoint to the layers above it.

These ‘Pure’ forms have the capacity to awaken dormant faculties at the edges of perception, within the receptive observer. Through the careful selection and fine tuning of colours, their relative weights and proportions, Rothko was able to engage them on an immediate emotional and spiritual level, below the threshold of conscious thought processes. In other paintings, equally emotive forms are poised above complex, subtle yet powerful fields of colour. Their different configurations capable of provoking a variety of responses.

Although he intended his work to express ‘pure’ emotion through primordial forms, these are abstract paintings rich in association; with ‘equivalents’ to things found in the visual world. Rectangular forms that might be interpreted as landscapes, doors or windows. Or even the Void. His art may suggest a sense of doubt for some and it speaks of the impermanence of the material world. Emptiness is Form, Form is Emptiness.

It is poignant that also on show is Rothko’s last picture, before his depression got the better of him and he committed suicide. ‘Untitled’ (Black on Grey) was painted in 1969/70. It is a relatively small canvas by his standards of the time and displayed in Room 8 ‘Darkness Visible’. The canvas is horizontally divided; the lower part a light opaque and patchy grey, which reveals through it the darker, more evenly grey background. How ‘subjective’ should we be? I’ll leave it to you.

Another significant curator and publicist for the Abstract Expressionists was Betty Parsons, who opened her famous New York gallery in 1946. Still and Rothko all had shows there, as did later artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns. Parsons not only represented Pollock, but also artists like Joseph Cornell and Adolph Gottlieb.

In 1947 Adolph Gottlieb stated “The role of artist has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today, when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time”. This is an insight into the state of mind of one of the first artists to contemplate the terrifying new Atomic Age.

Gottlieb had followed a creative path similar to many of the other artists associated with Abstract Expressionism. Many of his paintings consist of matrix like structures, filled with totemic forms, that recall Picasso and early Pollock. These paintings are full of pictograms, that demonstrate a preoccupation with primitivism and the desire to find new relevant pictorial forms, in an age of fear and change. Forms that should deeply connect to something inside the spectator.

The Surrealism of Miro in particular can be seen in his later work, in the graphic forms that suggest elements of landscape. These works are intriguing and occupy that border between the abstract and symbolic, as the artist sought to simplify and fine tune his visual language.

Willem De Kooning’s paintings explore, through a superior draughtsmanship and mixed media, the process of painting itself. In Abstract Expressionism at the RA, his work occupies the most prominent position, other than Pollock.

His art was informed by a wide knowledge of it’s history. Mostly known for his figurative subjects, De Kooning also painted landscapes and still lives. Although there are landscapes exhibited in the show, the main focus is on paintings from his ‘Women’ series- the artist’s most famous works. They are arranged to give the viewer an insight into the evolution of this series, that still have the power to shock.

‘Pink Angels’ from 1945 on display, marks for De Kooning an advance towards his characteristic style. Reminiscent of Picasso, but to a greater degree, the anatomic components of the female form are fractured and distorted, so as to tie them back to the picture background. The resulting flattened image may share a conceptual link to the Postimpressionist-Cubist distortions of the picture’s space and subject from half a century before- Gauguin springs to mind- but the violence, drama and action of the scene is something totally new.

In his ‘Women’ series, the artist employed and extended his mixed media approach, using oil, enamel and charcoal. A painting like ‘Woman 1’ (50-1) might look like it was created rather quickly, but in fact it was the result of a two year period of process, in which the artist employed various methods, such as the application of newspaper to parts of the painted surface, effectively sealing them off and keeping the paint malleable, whilst adding texture. The artist could then rip them off later, thereby revealing previous layers of working. Conceptually of course, this utilised an element one might call ‘time recovery’. Sometimes the print would remain attached to the canvas, adding even further evidence of ‘process’. This collage based technique would often suggest De Kooning’s starting point; when smiles, eyes etc from women’s magazines were incorporated into the painting, used and transformed.

De Kooning’s paintings look very much in a state of flux and yet seem complete. As if he’s trying to physically tie down the subject with swathes of material. He’d use whatever means necessary to apply the paint to the canvas, physically tearing at the picture where necessary. It was Picasso who often questioned the nature of a painting being ever ‘finished’ and so with De Kooning. It was also Picasso who would later borrow from De Kooning’s approach in his later work.

De Kooning claimed that his work was not a process of reduction, but rather addition. “I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and colour. I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it – drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or idea.” He seems to ‘build up’ his subjects, transmuting them by his radical method of action painting, into forms capable of expressing something deeper.

But what exactly. Can we define what they express? Certainly De Kooning’s paintings have a vitality and presence to them and are visually interesting. They also have a precision in terms of their execution. I would argue that the artist was able capture the essence of his subjects, however distorted they might appear. In their fractured form, we learn something about our own vulnerability. Remember, when the Abstract Expressionists were painting, there was the very real fear of nuclear annihilation. It’s all here in De Kooning’s work.

Significantly perhaps, the artist spent time as an apprentice commercial artist in his native Rotterdam as a young man as well as in the US. The origins of his mature work, in terms of subject, composition and scale, do possess something of the billboard and poster. His time as a house painter no doubt also had an effect on his art, if one considers his painting technique and palette.

De Kooning was a superb painter and his work still looks visually powerful. However, it’s complicated when looking at the ‘Women’ series today. From a Feminist perspective, there remain many questions that need to be answered. Why the female form? Why the violent treatment of subject? What if any issues lay behind these choices? How Freudian do we go? The artist’s distinctive method of painting was new and progressive at the time. But his subjects were actually relatively traditional and he used those same methods in his landscape pieces. Also, De Kooning painted many solitary male figures during his career.

If you want to look into his life, you might find some answers to explain his choice and treatment of the female form. He battled alcoholism and had a complex relationship with his wife Elaine. Yet they shared an artistic connection that ran the course of both their lives. In the final analysis, it is therefore necessary for the individual to extract, from the large amount of opposing points of view, their own opinion about De Kooning’s motivations. His art stands as art.

De Kooning’s influence can be seen in the art of another artist on display. Franz Kline. This is particularly noticeable in the angular, slash like marks that Kline often used to delineate the canvas and to explore the spontaneity and drama of the painterly ‘gesture’.

Originally from Pennsylvania, he started out painting conventional subjects, but gradually began to reduce his subjects and his palette, until left with the stark combinations of black and white brush marks that made his mature style. Significantly, he once said “I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important.”. One story of how Kline came to produce these works is through the discovery of an OHP to enlarge a fragment of a drawing. But whatever the origin of his approach to painting, Kline saw the potential to produce works of great visual impact.

On display is ‘Vawdavitch’ from 1955, which powerfully demonstrates the pictorial possibilities attainable when the artist’s focus is reduced to a certain set of parameters.

Many of his works have the appearance of calligraphy, in particular, Chinese or Japanese. Although the artist himself denied a direct influence, it can be seen in the precise application of paint, through careful control of the hand, coordinated with the eye. This then gives these works an added degree of precision in terms of their composition and realisation of form.

It should however be added that Kline’s working process was complicated. He often worked from extensive preparatory studies- something rare among the Abstract Expressionists- which might seem to contradict the ‘intuitive’ look of his paintings.

However, Kline was a painter of brilliance. All the same, I wonder how many people see just how subtle his paintings actually are. The root of their tensions and drama can appear in the smallest of details, where the white paint has been thinly laid over the edges of the black for example. Or in the traces of where the artist has twisted his brush at an angle. In a busy gallery, although they are visually very powerful, I think it takes time and determination to really appreciate their subtleties.

Arshille Gorky was a pivotal figure in the history of the development of Abstract Expressionism. From distant Armenia, he arrived in the US in 1920 a broken man, a haunted survivor of the genocide carried out against his people by the Turks during the First World War. Gorky’s mature work is both playful and intensely powerful. They reveal and explore internal dramas- traumas of the artist played out through expressive and varied abstract forms.

As an artist, he progressed through various styles, including Impressionism, but his exploration of emotions through the imagination chimed more with the lessons of the Postimpressionists. Some of his works show an interest in Cezanne, although the most significant influences on Gorky’s mature work were Cubism and in particular Surrealism (Andre Breton was highly taken with his work).

By the mid 40s, he had been close to many of the artists that would later emerge at the forefront of the first wave of Abstract Expressionism and who themselves would hail him as an influence. Pollock, Krasner and Rothko met the artist working on the Federal Art Project in the early 30s. Later he became friends with De Kooning too. Gorky’s influence is central to the evolution of the basic principles of Abstract Expressionism. The large scale on which these artists worked, as well as the principle of ‘all over’ coverage. Not only that, but their diverse gestural techniques were indebted to his pioneering efforts.

His abstract language of form and colour expresses raw emotion. No better example of this was painted in 1947 and is called ‘Agony”. Its blood red, closed-eyes palette recalls Matisse, but in its evocation of unendurable trauma, may be seen as a state of mind. The figures, if they can be seen as such, recall the abstract distortions of Kandinsky or Klee. In this picture, everything is in a state of flux. Also, consider ‘The Liver is the Cock’s Comb’ from 1944. Its colourful limpid forms, inspired by Picasso and Miro, are part barbarity, part humour. They are sometimes opaque, partly caricature and spread fairly equally over the picture surface. The paint in Gorky’s mature work was often thin and allowed to flow, according to its own momentum on the canvas. This gave it an added vitality and immediacy. In ‘Abstract Expressionism at the RA’ , Gorky’s work is prominently displayed. We see his examples of his early works as well as ‘Water of the Flowery Mill’ from 1944.

Clyfford Still’s paintings make an immediate visual impact on the spectator. As a skilled draughtsman with great knowledge of the history of art, he had the ability and perspective to develop a radical yet innovative approach to painting. He began by painting landscapes, but these gradually evolved into the pure abstracts he became known for.

Still’s large paintings are composed of flat, two dimensional interlocking areas that explore, through dramatic divisions of the canvas, the borders and abysses between each. The artist made spiritual associations between the forms in his paintings and ideas of transcendence. In their abstract drama and tension, his works symbolically refer to and make associations with the human condition.

With its irregular ‘jagged’ edges, Still’s work recalls ripped-off-the-wall posters and certain constructivist art. The forms in his paintings are flat, yet are subtle in varied texture, tone or colour. Still applied his paint using a palette knife. This enabled him to give great variation to the picture surfaces and particularly the borders.

Prominently displayed in this exhibition is ‘PH-950’ from 1950. Although an uncompromisingly ‘abstract’ painting that is in no way tries to delude the viewer into three dimensional illusion, PH-950 is to an extent ambiguous. If we read it as a ‘picture’, it evokes the literal. Trees or mountains. If we read it ‘correctly’ as paint on a picture surface, it suggests the dynamic contrast between two blocks of colour.

With reference to the development of Abstract Expressionist ‘Colour Field’ painting, Still was significant in that he came to pure abstraction and his distinctive flat ‘All Over’ approach earlier than most of the others, including Pollock. Still has been described as one of the most anti traditional of the Abstract Expressionists and his work retains its power. He continues to influence many younger artists.

Barnett Newman once wrote “old standards of beauty were irrelevant: the sublime was all that was appropriate – an experience of enormity which might lift modern humanity out of its torpor.” He believed that the subjects and mechanisms of traditional art had ran their course and were no longer relevant.

After a period working in a Surrealist vain, Newman shifted the focus of his art towards the existentialist concerns that would drive his mature work. Among his large expansive canvases on display in the exhibition is ‘Midnight Blue’ from 1970. It poetically evokes an emotional response to the colour blue on large scale, as well as playing with our readings of it’s space.

Newman developed what he called ‘Zips’, thin vertical lines, connecting both sides of the canvas. These explored the traditional tensions between background and foreground, playing upon the borders between the subject and its setting. Although they may appear as divisions, the Zips are meant to convey the merger of both sides of the canvas.

The early Zips were variegated, but as he progressed they became sharper and more defined. His first fully developed Zip painting was ‘Onement 1’ from 1948. But we see on display ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ from 1951 and 1950. Both these works are highly symbolic and relate to the artist’s interest in creation myths. Their red and brown colours are suggestive of the connection between earth and the blood of life.

The Zip paintings are distinctive in other ways. Visually they explore the dimensions of the canvas in measured terms evocative of Mondrian. Indeed, both artists share the idea of a painting establishing perimeters that flow out from the image to influence the spectator on a fundamental level.

Newman stated that he and his contemporaries were seeking a totally new form of visual expression, “by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it.” It would exist as “self-evident” purged of reference to the historical, mythical or nostalgic. An art made “out of our own feelings”.

Ad Reinhardt made a steady progression towards abstract art. Initially composed of primordial geometric shapes and arrangements, his subsequent work explored single colours or tone. Reinhardt eventually came to his Black paintings, that are composed of black layers on top of a black background. The ‘subject’ of ‘Abstract Painting’ (1960) is a cruciform shape. It is distinguished from the ‘background’ only by the way the paint is applied. It’s tone and texture slightly lighter. Looking similar to when you use a roller on wet printing ink. The background looks darker in finish.

Such absolute pictorial concerns suggest comparisons to Malevich and Reinhardt’s paintings certainly share certain rectilinear and symmetrical preoccupations. Certainly both he and Malevich had a grounding in Cubism, through which their mature work evolved.

When looking at his later work, it is perhaps surprising to note that he had worked as a commercial illustrator in a variety of contexts. He was also significant for his writings and his activism. In particular in opposition to US involvement in Vietnam.

Newman and Reinhardt are exhibited in the same room.

One of my favourite artists on display was Mark Tobey. By a dramatic process of layering calligraphic-like symbols on yet more layers of complex marks and signs, he developed his own version of the uniform ‘all over’ coverage that Pollock was exploring. With Tobey’s painting and prints, these layers add up on the picture surface, so as to create exquisitely lyrical, yet densely packed canvases that are examples of what he called ‘white writing’.

Of course, none of that conveys just how beautiful, fragile and constantly changing his paintings are to look at. Like some ancient script or details of a richly patterned Turkish carpet. The light that seems to emanate from them was to my eyes, reminiscent of light falling to the ground through trees. Subtle, forever shifting and visually dynamic. Particularly special is the way Tobey was able to create subtle contrasts between the lighted background and the dark ink-like markings.

Mostly self taught as an artist and older than the other Abstract Expressionists. The inspiration for his painting came from his extensive studies of Eastern Philosophy and there was also a spiritual dimension to his work. He was a follower of the B’Hai faith and introduced several of his contemporaries to this.

Tobey had travelled widely throughout his later life. He also studied several Asian languages and their scripts. Introduced by Teng Kuei, a Chinese painter studying at the University of Washington, he explored the intricacies of Chinese Calligraphy. Also, in his time in the Levant, Tobey studied Persian and Arab scripts and later still, Hai Ku poetry in Japan. The lessons of all this explain why his paintings exhibit a distinct Oriental flavour in their fluidity of form. But Tobey’s marks are abstract flourishes, suggestive of pure expression rather than any linguistic meaning.

Although not an Abstract Expressionist, Wolfgang Paalen had been experimenting with the reduction of form as early as the 1930s, even before his time as a Surrealist. Touched by many personal tragedies, he lived a varied life in many places and his work was informed by archeology and philosophy; subjects which he would contribute to in addition to art. Exploring the element of chance in his work, Paalen developed what he called ‘Fumage’. This was to use the patterns created by smoke marks from a flame on a surface to evoke images. The resulting paintings of vast landscapes, look ravaged by geological processes and time and perhaps reveal something of the internal world of the artist himself. Paalen suffered with deep depression throughout his relatively short life.

Through the late 30s, his work became more abstract and in the US, he exhibited at the Julian Levy gallery in 1940. He spent much time in Mexico, braking with Surrealism, due to it becoming increasingly dogmatic.

The painting he later developed would lay much of the ground for the fledgling Abstract Expressionist movement. ‘Les Premiers Spaciales’ of 1941 for example, with its emphasis on the two dimensional surface and the all-over coverage of the picture plane. The subjects appear to dissolve into the painting, like those in certain works by Gorky. Many forms are both abstract yet suggestive of the real world, swelling and retracting in a seemingly endless state of change.The artist makes little distinction made between background and subject, that appear to writhe and merge together. Something that was pioneered by Cubism.

Another artist heavily influenced by Surrealism, who became one of the most eloquent exponents of Abstract Expressionism was Robert Motherwell. This artist often worked on a huge scale and his large canvases have great impact on the viewer who takes time to look carefully, beyond their initial graphical impact.

In talking about the emergence of an American ‘School’ of Painting, as distinct from the European modernist tradition, Motherwell is a good example to cite. He was often inspired by subjects and themes drawn from classical literature, philosophy or history as his points of departure- and sometimes used text in his work. An example of this are his more than 140 ‘Elegies to the Spanish Republic’.

Many of Motherwell’s paintings have elements of Cubism or Matisse about them. Mostly however they contain subjects that are suggestive of something more primal. Like in Still’s art, his work is flat and sometimes quite painterly. Abstract forms that have many of the structural properties and tensions of Oriental calligraphy, in the way that the artist has painted them. Others canvases look as if they might have less abstract origins; for example, evoking still lives. Motherwell’s palette varied between monochrome and blocks of colour, occasionally mixed. He also used collage elements as points of reference, including sheet music.

Motherwell had been introduced to the possibilities of Automatism by another artist. The Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta. He was a prominent figure among the exiled Surrealists and those who would eventually become the Abstract Expressionists. Matta’s concern to align the forms in his paintings to the picture plane and consequently flatten out the image towards the edges of the canvas, blurred the distinctions between foreground, background etc. They illustrate, as we have seen with other artists, that he shared many of the pictorial concerns that would eventually lead to Abstract Expressionism. Concerns evident, for example, in a painting like ‘To Give Painless Light’ from 1955.

Matta’s art evokes epic scenes, verging on or completely abstract in form, that appear drawn from some conflict of the mind and which he called ‘Inscapes’. He once stated “How to picture the battlefield, not the physical one, but the one inside of us”. Certain images contain distorted, trans-figurative elements, reminiscent of Gorky or even Bellmar.

The exhibition also presents work by Phillip Guston, who is probably better known for his later figurative work. We see on display examples painted during his time as a ‘First Generation’ Abstract Expressionist (although he preferred the term member of the ‘New York School’), as well as later work. Thus we can compare these two approaches.

Guston had started out painting figuratively. Interestingly, he studied with Jackson Pollock very early on, under the tutelage of a certain Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky at the Manual Arts High School in LA. Whilst there, both were introduced to modern art and Eastern Philosophy.

He gradually moved toward abstract art, but the tendency towards seeing his work in figurative terms still remained. Guston once spoke about the abstract forms emergent in his work being like figures returning ‘jostling each other’.

Guston’s paintings and drawings of this period demonstrate a precision in making and arranging marks and forms on the picture surface. They appear harmoniously balanced and to occupy or emerge from the centre of the image. In compositional terms, these works echo Mondrian’s ‘Pier and Ocean’ studies from 1915. Each pictorial ‘component’ held in place by vertical or horizontal lines or marks. ‘Plus or Minus’.

The artist also shares with Mondrian the preference for a reduced palette. In his case for fleshy pinks and reds or blue greys, although he often worked in monochrome too. Paintings like ‘Zone’ from 1953/4 demonstrate the subtlety of Guston’s application and arrangements of form. The ‘subject’ is reduced to the point of diffusion or dissolving and paint is blended so as to produce an opaque effect.

Instead of a flat and even finish, Guston gives added expressive power to his painting by the inclusion of subtle yet varied surface textures; sometimes created by his fingers in addition to conventional brushes. This tendency would be a feature of his later figurative ‘Neo expressionist’ work. These later paintings also possess the disquieting qualities to be found in Giorgio De Chirico’s art, but with an added ‘cartoonish’, almost satirical element.

Guston was always politically aware and that perhaps might explain something about his return to figuration. This addresses a question at the root of abstract art. Can (or even should) it engage the viewer with issues beyond those in art? Also, what exactly are the parameters of art and how connected to the wider world does a work need to be to have meaning and value? If it remains something purely of itself, is it not ‘art for arts sake’? .

I think its fair to say that in the minds of the general public at least, Abstract Expressionism was a male dominated art movement. Like its predecessor Surrealism, it had many female adherents and artists of great talent involved. But unlike Surrealism- at least in terms of how it presented itself- tended to fall back on the idea of the ‘macho’ male outsider artist, alone and temperamental. That of course was the public image, but what were the facts?

As we have seen, the 50s were a time of great conformity in America. Women were still expected to be immaculately dressed housewives, effectively serving their husbands and looking after the kids. Among the general population too- despite the rise of the anti hero in film and pop music- there was little room for individual expression. But since Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ and especially the Federal Art Project of the mid thirties, many women had found ways to function as independent artists, outside their conventional roles as wives and mothers. The war too had provided hitherto unavailable jobs that allowed escape from domestic drudgery. Also, the emergent Beatnik movement now offered a certain amount of liberation; politically, socially as well as sexually. All these developments provided new artistic opportunities for women.

Joan Mitchell was part of the second wave of Abstract Expressionists and her work is expansive to say the least. She often worked large. So large in fact that the single piece could become a diptych. To these eyes, her painting has an oriental flavour. Aspects of it reminded me of classical Chinese scroll painting as well as Monet. The vast scale of ‘Waterlilies’, as well as it’s exploration of colour and the properties of paint. Like many other Abstract Expressionists, in some paintings, Mitchell shows the influence of Mondrian. In particular his early ‘Tree’ paintings, that seem to sit between the abstract and representational.

She once stated: “Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work. This is just a use of space and form: it’s an ambivalence of forms and space.” Certain of her paintings seem to come from landscape subjects, but the marks she makes do not necessarily look like they are drawn directly from nature. Rather, some kind of improvisation appears to be taking place on the picture plane and the results sit between the two.

Usually, Mitchell painted on a pale or white background, which gave her work an added graphic quality. Also, as far as being an Abstract Expressionist, her art is significant because she keeps to conventional compositional arrangements of subject, background and foreground, rather than evenly filling the entire picture plane like say Jackson Pollock.

Mitchell was a painter who’s inventive and gestural mark making is varied in form and fresh to look at. At times, the paint seems diluted, daubed or sponged onto the picture’s surface, so that it is almost translucent and opaque. In addition to the brush, she often used her own fingers to manipulate it, which gives the work a directness. Her application of paint sometimes looks violent, other times it is more sensual. But the resulting works are always vivid, dynamic and have the appearance of being in a state of constant flux.

Her work is also tight and echoes Impressionist painting in its composition, methods of mark making and celebration of colour. She was particularly influenced by Van Gogh, which can be seen not just in terms of technique but also subject matter. Her 1987 work ‘No Birds’ is in fact a response to Vincent’s late painting ‘Wheatfield and Crows’. One other source of inspiration for Mitchell’s work was literary in the form of poetry.

Most of the artists we’ve looked at produced drawings as vivid and dynamic as their paintings. Some also were printmakers, like Joan Mitchell. But what of Abstract Expressionism as Sculpture? How were the principles of the movement expressible in three dimensions?

Throughout the show, we see examples of the work of David Smith. Like the other Abstract Expressionists, he found a way to intuitively respond to his inner voice. The sculptures he produced may not be as easy to locate and connect to the principles of the movement (as already outlined in two dimensions), but if we consider how sculpture had previously been made, his work will be seen to share many of the characteristics and intentions of artists like Pollock or Kline.

Smith made his enigmatic and totemic sculptures by welding.

Traditional metal sculpture was cast, rather than constructed- a very laborious and time consuming process. But Smith would weld together objects- often found, so as to create unique metal sculptures, in a similar way to a painter selecting images, forms or colours. Thus creating a union of discrete symbols. He once even said “I belong with the painters”. His was a revolutionary approach that offered unprecedented spontaneity in three dimensions. It allowed Smith to react quickly to a subject or instinct in ways hitherto impossible for somebody working in metal. As he also said, the sculptors “conception is (now) as free as a that of the painter”.

The genesis of his subject matter might take the form of a landscape, still life or even a pure idea. One piece is called ‘The Letter’ for example. The results may sometimes even have figurative elements to them. An unknowable abstract figure, seemingly suggested by the fragments used to make it, that recalls work made by Giacometti. At the other extreme, many pieces look diagrammatic, like pictograms drawn in metal through the air and linked by lines in space. Certain sculptures are delicate and filigree, looking like they could drift off their plinths, whist others remain heavy and industrial, earthbound.

The entrance to the RA displays sculptures that are representative of the series that Smith’ worked on from 1956 until his untimely death in 1965. These pieces explore themes common to his art and are suggestive of anthropomorphic or architectonic presences.

The Surrealists had created objects by learning a specific lesson of Marcel Duchamp. The ‘Readymade’ had prefigured the primacy of the artist in the selection of an object and its transmutation into a work of art. But he then produced ‘Assisted’ Readymades, that implied the association of objects hitherto completely unrelated, so as to create a completely new one. Their power was in the connection together of two or more formerly discrete items, that the imagination of the artist had spliced together.

This idea was of course a logical extension of collage and ultimately emerged (like so much else) from Cubism. Andre Breton could therefore select objects from the ‘real’ world- objects he had found not created- so as to make a new object by association. A ‘Poem’ object. It was the case that ‘found’ objects- on their own or grouped together- assumed a special significance for the Surrealists. One based on the ‘chance’ encounter, but with deeper meanings and associations. Breton once spoke about the desire to find the perfect stone on a beach. It’s value wasn’t in just finding a stone by chance. It was in finding the stone you had been looking for all along.

Many of the preoccupations and techniques of Smith’s art would go on to influence successive generations of artists, in Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art. Take a look at Anthony Caro’s work for example. In the final analysis, Smith was pivotal in liberating sculpture from the tyranny of technique and in freeing the imagination of the artist in three dimensions.

Room 10 contains works on paper and photographs, that are related to the movement. There are the important documentary images taken by Hans Namuth of Pollock painting. Also works by Aaron Siskind, showing raw markings and graffiti- expressive subjects that were of great interest to many of the Abstract Expressionists; including Pollock and Kline. The abstract ideograms captured by Barbara Morgan, Gjon Mili and Harry Callahan prove that forms need not a formal language to communicate.

In Conclusion

Whilst we take time to consider the many themes and approaches to making the art on display in this show, it is necessary I think to take into account some of the opposing critical points of view. Many see these artists as a last burst of the spirit of heroic Romanticism, that had started in the 18th century and attempted to capture the sublime in nature (or at least the essence of what might lay behind it.) That the artist somehow provided a link to ‘the Divine’ or at least that beyond ordinary human experience.

Today however, is it possible to engage and invoke spiritual or metaphysical concerns in painting? That to claim your art could in some way- how shall I put it- ‘heal the soul’ was a naive assumption, flawed and even dangerous. But that the Abstract Expressionists aimed to liberate and locate the human being in an uncertain and ever changing world, was a noble aim surely?

Their work may even be seen by some as ‘Art for arts sake’, but to reduce it all to such a one dimensional concept undervalues the many innovations of those involved; who’s work still manages to inspire all kinds of artists.

Perhaps though all this is one of the reasons that makes looking at such art so inspiring and refreshing for the viewer. That somewhere in the backs of our minds, even though we know art cannot ‘change the world’ as many of the Abstract Expressionists no doubt believed it could; we admire them even more for trying to. And what might that say about our time? In which ideas of progress and liberation seem to have come to a halt and so many artists busy themselves with contextual and conceptual grapples, but who’s work leaves so many cold.

Some points about the venue. Crowds. Its my own fault I guess. Coming midweek half term time. But despite the small children darting here and there, it was their overbearing parents who really grated. I actually thought it wonderful that kids were seeing work like this. With their open imaginations, I think it vitally important that they get the chance to contemplate and interpret such art. Something that is a challenge to their (conditioned) assumptions about what a work of art can be. One young lad I overheard, after pondering a De Kooning landscape said “Wow, its just like a photograph”. Who says kids cant do sarcasm brilliantly.

One other bit of advice. When visiting ‘Abstract Expressionism at the RA’, try not to be overwhelmed by the large numbers of paintings on display. My advice is to explore each artist, theme etc and avoid all the distractions available. Large visitor numbers in a small space require patience and time, so as to get the best from the show. Id even suggest several visits, to get the most out of proceedings. I think you ultimately take away from this show the spirit of that relatively short period, in which vast new possibilities were opening up in art.

In the final analysis, one thing is obvious. 70 years on, the art of the Abstract Expressionists still has the power to express the spirit of the time in which it was made. To enchant, inspire and confound people of all ages. And thank goodness for that. This is one of the most comprehensive and successful retrospectives I have seen in years. The ambition of the all involved certainly paid off and they wholeheartedly deserve commendation for an exhibition of a calibre not likely to been seen again in this country for a long time.

(C) Gideon Hall 2016