Abstract Expressionism at The Royal Academy of Arts

By Chris Dickman
Founding Editor, Graphics.com

There's a scene in Tim Burton's 2012 movie Big Eyes, set in the late 1950s, in which the owner of an art gallery owner specializing in the abstract paintings of the era is disgusted to observe the success of a gallery across the street, which is devoted to the work of Margaret Keane. Because Keane's wide-eyed waifs, as shown below, came out of nowhere to become a cultural sensation in the pre-internet era that's now hard to imagine. These sad kids were everywhere, with inexpensive prints driving wide adoption and the paintings themselves becoming fetishistic objects of the rich and famous. Never one to let a cultural phenomenon go unremarked, Andy Warhol observed of the cheap prints that "I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it." Hard to argue with that. And yet what a contrast between Keane's faux-sad waifs and the work of the abstract expressionists, who dominated the New York art scene in the 50s.

A show opening at The Royal Academy of Arts doesn't attempt to frame Abstract Expressionism within the admittedly kitch-ridden America of the 1950s but we can't hold that against it. Instead the focus is on the work itself, freed of any real-world context, as critic Clement Greenberg, the champion of the movement, would have been happy to observe. Greenberg was something of an expert on kitsch, having declared that it was the manifestation of the working class hunger for culture. According to Clem, "Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time." No sad-eyed waifs for him!

But to return to the matter at hand. The exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts is apparently the first major exhibition of Abstract Expressionism to be held in the UK in almost six decades, and includes more than 150 paintings, sculptures and photographs from public and private global collections. All the heavy hitters would seem to have been rounded up, including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. These days you can't just slap some cool paintings on the wall so the art historical trope for this hymn to paint dripped, slathered and poured on canvas is a "re-evaluation," something much beloved of art historians. In this case it's a question of "color-field" versus "action" painters. I can hear you yawning but such is the stuff art historical careers are based on, so please cut them some slack.

To say things more plainly, the organizers have brought together some funky, energetic work from a movement that was overhyped at the time and may have been used as a Cold War weapon by the CIA. Despite that, the work remains well worth experiencing in the flesh. Because we're talking about huge canvases, often energetically, even frenetically actualized. These simply die in reproduction, so this represents a great chance to stand in front of them and drift away while contemplating all that paint. You can catch the show at The Royal Academy of Arts in London until January, 2017, after which it heads to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, from February 3 until June 4, 2017. More information is available on The Royal Academy of Arts site.

Willem De Kooning, Woman II, 1952.
Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas. 149.9 x 109.3 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, 1995 © 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London Photo © 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943.
Oil and casein on canvas. 243.21 x 603.25 cm. The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016.

Mark Rothko, No. 4 (Yellow, Black, Orange on Yellow/ Untitled), 1953.
Oil on canvas. 269.2 x 127 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.

Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955.
Oil on canvas. 158.1 x 204.9 cm. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Gift of Claire B. Zeisler 1976.39. Photo Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photography: Joe Ziolkowski © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015.

Jackson Pollock, Male and Female, 1942-43.
Oil on canvas. 186.1 x 124.5 cm. Philadelphia Musuem of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Gates Lloyd, 1974 Photo Philadelphia Museum of Art © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015.
Sam Francis, Untitled, 1956.
Oil on canvas. 373.5 x 233.5 cm. Lousiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark. Donation: The New Carlsberg Foundation © 2016. Sam Francis Foundation, California / DACS Photo: Poul Buchard / Brøndum & Co..

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