Sunday, 30 October 2016

Abstract Expressionism at the RA

 When I have mentioned to friends and colleagues that I went to this exhibition, I have generally been met with a kind of rabbit-in-the-headlights look somewhere between fear and bafflement. If you're not familiar with contemporary art it might sound a bit highbrow but please, PLEASE don't let that put you off; you absolutely do not need to be any kind of expert to go and to enjoy it (exhibit A, my good self). Perhaps more than any other kind of art, it is all about feeling, not knowing. However, if some kind of definition helps . . .

What is Abstract Expressionism (or Ab Ex to its friends)? Well, if we agree that abstract art is generally art that is not 'representative' - i.e. is not a 'representation', or copy, of something in the outside world - and that expressionism is about expressing your thoughts, feelings and ideas - then I guess a reasonable working definition would be that Abstract Expressionists aim to communicate something from the artist's inner world without necessarily using anything in the external world to do this. (Apologies to all the art historians out there who are currently doing a very good impression of Munch's Scream, but hey, it works for me.)

Actually, there are those who would argue that Abstract Expressionism is not a movement or group at all - primarily, most of the artists within it. Rothko famously stated, 'I am not an abstractionist. I'm not interested in relationships of colour or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on'. The paintings don't really share a particular style; in fact, the canvasses are so full of spontaneity and individuality that apparently the CIA covertly funded Abstract Expressionist exhibitions during the Cold War as an act of propaganda, to lure intellectuals and artists away from Communism by comparing the freedom of these deeply subjective works with the the rigid confines limiting creativity under Soviet rules.

However, the term has stuck as a useful way of referring to a group of artists working in New York in the 1940s and 50s. This period just after the Second World War was, as you might expect, a time of freedom and release, of great explosive energy and creativity, of jazz and Jack Kerouac. One of the comments I found most interesting on the audio guide was about Jackson Pollock and the physical act of creating the works, sometimes called 'gesture' or 'action' painting; it did not just involve the wrist and hand, like traditional painting, but the whole arm - even the whole body; expansive, sweeping movements, requiring a completely different energy and control. Also, suddenly the artist was not standing still in front of a vertical canvas but moving around above a horizontal one; in Blue Poles, paint was dropped from up to two feet above the canvas.

Another common factor you will notice is the scale of the canvasses. Pollock was commissioned to paint Mural for the entrance hall of Peggy Guggenheim's Manhattan townhouse; this was his largest canvas to date and was followed by both Rothko and Gorky producing their largest works the following year. The temptation when viewing it is to stand back and look at the whole painting from a distance, but it was always meant to be seen up close, in a relatively confined space compared to a gallery. Viewing it like this you both appreciate the detail and feel almost engulfed by it, drawn into the energy.

At the heart of the exhibition, in the Central room, are the Rothkos. I will always have a special place in my heart for Rothko and these gorgeous, hypnotic, melancholy paintings; years ago, being taken to the Seagram Murals room in the Tate Modern was a revelatory experience for me and sparked my love of contemporary art. For me, in this exhibition, it was No 15 (Dark Greens on Blue with Green Band) 1957 that drew me in and kept me standing there; somehow, once you stop trying to rationalise them, they connect with you in a way I can't explain but which fascinates me. Luminous, intense and captivating, no print or photograph will ever be able to do them justice.

One of the unexpected gifts of this exhibition was the work of Clyfford Still, an artist I wasn't familiar with before this. In my defence, Still rejected the commercialism of the art world (a pet hate of Rothko's too) and moved to a farm in Maryland, selling hardly any of his paintings; 95% of his work is in a museum dedicated to him in Denver, Colorado and this is one of the few times they have loaned it out. I'm very glad they did, as they are powerful and striking pieces, again designed to actively involve the viewer.

So, even if you think you're not into abstract art, go to this exhibition. Go on your own so you don't have to react in any particular way, and go with an open mind. Don't worry about understanding them, don't try to define what they are about, or of; just stand, look and wait.

Yours, enthralled all over again,

London Girl About Town xx

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