The recent exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, Abstract Expressionism, explored the limitless exertion and inspired energy associated with the 1950’s movement in New York. This fluid post-war movement marked Art away from its normal boundaries and took the application of paint from rigid to a visual- onomatopoeia explosion.
This well-curated and positioned exhibit took you on a chronological journey of the movement in its 12 rooms. It explores the movement’s surrealist foundations to its large-scale abstract pieces, which were incomparable to anything of the time, including works from renowned artists such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.
Robert Motherwell- Mark Rothko-No 15(1957)
Wall Painting No 111 (1953)
Abstract Expressionism, the movement that began in the 1940s in New York, is defined as the first American movement to achieve international influence and put New York City at the centre of the Western art world’, finally replacing Paris.
Prior to the beginning of the movement, there had been a period of great devastation and hardship, which had been felt worldwide due to the two World Wars, the disaster of the Atomic Bomb and the paranoia of the Cold War, not to mention the Great Depression that hit America. During this period of calamity, which the Royal Academy refers to as the ‘age of anxiety’, America started to rise economically and with this, unleashed the art movement, which broke all longstanding boundaries. It truly marked a new fearlessness in painting.
Jackson Pollock- Blue poles, (1952)
Room 1 introduces the early work of this movement; the dark undertones that were seen in the 1940’s are adjusted here depicting a manifestation of surrealist ideas and a more overarching global dialect. This involved as the Royal Academy states, artworks with ‘myth-making, archetypes and primitivist forms, as well as burgeoning tendency to allow paint to flow almost with its own volition’.
The transition from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism is clearly seen in this room. For example the psychological Freudian undertones of Surrealism seen in examples of both Pollock and Rothko don’t quite match up to their traditional and highly respected style. Rothko’s oil painting Gethesemane, (1944) envisages a mythical bird and an assortment of almost cubist shapes around it. This leans towards it being quite abstracted but it cannot be deemed so entirely as nothing is more abstract than Rothko’s block colour oil paintings, seen in his later works. This transition can be equally seen in Pollock’s painting Male and Female (1942-3), with its surrealist layers, seen in the use of lines, sketches of diamonds, eyes and numbers and more abstracted patches of colour emerging out of the sides.
Jackson Pollock - Male and Female (1944) Mark Rothko - Gethesemane (1942-3)
Moving on to the second room we are introduced to artist, Arshile Gorky. As the Royal Academy states his ‘significance for the development of Abstract Expressionism lay in both his deep knowledge of the history of art and his ability to manipulate diverse trends, such as Cubism and Surrealism, into a fresh synthesis’. Gorky (1904-48) is also affiliated with his ability to merge forms into one another creating collages of forms that are almost camouflaged against the painted atmosphere of the background. This is seen particularly in his oil painting Water of the Flowery Mill (1944), in which each colour splurges and runs into the next. This dripping and fluid style creates a sense of atmosphere around each abstracted form.
Arshile Gorky- Water of the Flowery Mill (1944)
The bold happy colours of this piece, fortunately don’t reflect Gorky’s future traumas and challenges. A fire desolated his entire studio in Connecticut in 1946. This left him lost amongst his ideas and he proceeded to take a more depressive route in his work, as seen in the darker and bleaker tones of the Diary of Seducer (1945-46). His inner turmoil hit its climax in 1948, when he committed suicide.
Arshile Gorky- The Betrothal (1947) Arshile Gorky- Diary of Seducer (1945-46)
Gorky’s tragic early death left a legacy of work and ideas, which many say influenced that of Willem De Kooning, (1904-1997), as seen in, room 6 of this exhibition. De Kooning adopted a style similar to Gorky’s known as ‘action painting’, which was what the movement was known for. He driped and sploshed paint together merging colours to create abstracted figures. This is represented in his focal point in much of his works, the female form, celebrated in his Woman series. (Woman 11 as seen below).
Willem De Kooning- Pink Angels (1945) Willem De Kooning – Woman 11 (1952)
Jackson Pollock is in the next room; he was one of the most superior artists of the movement. In the exhibition his autonomous style of flicks and dribbles of paint, creates art that is independent of life and is almost painting itself. As the Royal Academy states, ‘Pollock poured and dribbled pigments with surprising control to achieve labyrinthine webs that incarnate the artist’s inner rhythms’. This is clearly seen in the large-scale pieces in this exhibition such as Summertime 9 A, (1948) below and Blue Poles, (1952) at the top.
Jackson Pollock- Summertime 9 A (1948)
Pollock describes the action and creative liveliness in his work as, ‘energy and motions made visible…. memories arrested in space’. The spontaneity in which he uses paint, through interpretation actually often belies the careful process of its creation. This room is juxtaposed by David Smith’s sculptures, presented in the middle against the maze of Pollock’s paintings on the walls. Smith’s continuous freedom in his pieces underlines the fluid undulation in both painting and sculptures at the time.
David Smith- Blackburn, David Smith- Star Song of an Irish Blacksmith, (1949-50) Cage 1953
Furthermore, moving through the exhibition we get to the room named the Violent Mark, which underlines the bold forces of stark block colours, explored by several artists in New York City starting in the 1950’s. One of these artists was Franz Kline, (1910-1926), an American painter born in Pennsylvania. His piece Vawdavitch, (1955), clearly underlines this violent mark in painting. As the Royal Academy describes, Kline’s ‘mature art explored black and white, colliding forms and violent imbalance to create images at once architectonic and darkly poetic’. His style seen here implies that even though he uses very simple abstracted, monochrome blocks of colour, there is still a lot of energy in his application of it. This is evident particularly with his use of his own hands, which can be seen when examining the paint marks closely.
Franz Kline- Vawdavitch, (1955)
The exhibition leads you then to room 7 to the works of iconic artist and purposely the most centralised artist in the exhibition Mark Rothko, (1903-1976). The moment you walk into the room, it feels different to the others as the lighting is dimmed which darkens the mood. The room itself is circular in shape completely different to the rest, centralising his fundamental importance within this exhibition. His prominent block rectangles or ‘Facades’ as Rothko named them are known worldwide for their dull effectiveness enticing interpretations with their simplicity. As the Royal Academy states, ‘they offer surrogates for the upright human presence; that they evoke sublime abstract equivalents to landscape; and that they are fundamentally mood pieces’.
Mark Rothko Mark Rothko- No. 1, White and Red,
No. 4 (1962)
When walking around this room one can see similarities to that of Rothko’s chapel in Texas, opened in 1971 which is almost identical in representation. His chapel sees the ‘enigmatic hypnotism’ of his pieces placed in dulled light around a circular space, reinforcing his poignancy in the Abstract Expressionism movement.
In the last couple of rooms the chronological journey of the movement continues with the pieces’ expanding sizes and abstracted and energetic forms. As the Royal Academy states, ‘in their final phases, the Abstract Expressionist's moved in disparate directions. Some addressed darkness as if exploring the mystery of last things. Others sought brighter realms’. One artist that particularly stood out was Clyfford Still in room 11. Still’s powerful large-scale pieces of bold contrasting colours, harshly cut into each other, are different to the other pieces in the exhibition. Each of his pieces are extremely dynamic and dominant however the placing of so many in one room deters from each pieces effect.
Clyfford Still - PH-950, 1950
The violent way the colours are broken up in his pieces, through sharp cracked lines, creates a sense of foreboding darkness descending on each piece. As the Royal Academy evaluates, ‘the massive pictorial expenses also hold tiny contrasting accents that foster a flickering vitality, as of life mingling with death’.
In the final room the one piece that really stood out was the extensive painting by Joan Mitchell called Salut Tom (1979), named after art critic Thomas B. Hess, who was an indispensable advocate of the movement. These four blocks of abstract landscape were definitely the largest piece in the exhibition, covering the whole wall. Mitchell here represents herself as an atmospheric engineer, with her use of abstracted blocks of colours, which blend and merged into one another creating an obscured landscape. Her use of lighter and darker tones is very interesting and helps creates the illusion of depth within the piece. The Royal Academy describes it as, ‘an apotheosis in which sunlight and shade contend, referencing Cézanne and Monet’s enveloping Nymphéas’.
Joan Mitchell- Salut Tom (1979)
Here at Syndicut, we have been truly energised and stimulated by this unrivalled art movement founded in the New York art scene in the 1950’s. This exhibition is undeniably worth seeing due to the spirited vigour and impulse it encapsulates. You will be able to see and learn the story of these extremely famous artistic inventors.