Friday 23 December 2016


The second in a two-part look at the 'Abstract Expressionism' exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, (first part here) which doubles as another entry in the series on abstract and semi-abstract art.

”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 the truth.”
- Newman, Gottleib and Rothko, letter to the New York Times, 1943

Just Abstract Enough

So... those Abstract Expressionists, just how abstract were they really? Or for that matter, why feel the pull of abstraction at all? As covered in the first part, abstraction seemed to offer universalism in art – a pan-language of non-specifity. And not having to choose whether to represent involved not having to choose what to represent.

In this era America meant the wide open spaces, the Cinemascope of the Western, but also the skyscraping city. Rightly or wrongly, New York was seen as the arch-metropolis, the epitome of modernity, quite literally towering over other towns. The 1962 film 'How the West Was Won' ended with a montage sequence between the Western trail and a modern multi-lane highway. But montage is a movie trick. How could a visual artist convey this? By not being stuck with literally depicting either, Ab Ex were able to suggest both at once. The artists themselves often moved between urban and rural bases during their careers, most famously Pollock setting up studio in a Long Island farmhouse.

Plus, if counter-intuitively, there's their Surrealist influence. As mentioned last time, their main interest in Surrealism was automatism. Yet to the Surrealists this was an end, a creative way to surrender to the subconscious, while to the Ab Exers it was but a means. So the Surrealists moved towards symbols, but stopped there. They tended to blow up symbols, with Dalian hyper-realism, or codify them like Miro. But Kandinsky's codifying of those symbols until they became essentially abstract didn't happen for Miro. While, for good or for ill, the Ab Exers lacked this limit.

However, though this show is often keen to wax lyrical over, for example, Rothko “finally pulveris[ing] the figurative residues in his art”, the clue is not so easily found in the name. Despite such talk, despite all the ideological fervour and shock reaction which surrounded the movement, the answer is often 'just abstract enough'. If Kandinsky, himself a major influence, never truly burnt his boats to representation then much of the time neither did they.

I don't intend saying too much about Gorky here, who isn't necessarily well served by the works shown. But let's start with a look at 'Waters of the Flowery Mill' (1944, above). The show comments he “had a memorable knack for camouflaging forms that they hover between objectivity and the organic or convulsive”. And indeed, peer into it a bit and it looks like a more representative work overpainted, with sections of the original still poking through. And in fact Gorky had started out depicting a ruined mill in Connecticut.

But if that explains half the title the coloured overpainting seems to resemble the 'waters'. Gorky had thinned his oils with turpentine, so they run and smear more like watercolours. It looks like an occluded front of colour, like the most psychedelic storm ever had been unleashed on that mill. It's Kandinsky influenced yet with none of his cosmic elegance. There seems something wild, enticingly out of control to it. It almost looks ahead to the 'bad trip' sequences of Sixties cinema. Yet at the same time still pinning it to that mill is important.

Similarly, David Smith's 'Hudson River Landscape' (1951, above) doesn't represent a landscape directly.But it's undulations continue to suggest serpentine river shapes. Marina Vaizey of the Arts Desk describes his sculpture as “hovering between representation, abstraction and three-dimensional doodling”. Smith's own picture of it places it before a landscape.

My Wife & Other Monsters (De Kooning)

With Willem de Kooning, however, the show talks of a “lifelong oscillation between figuration and abstraction”. And while at times he seems a little confused about the whole business, calling a work 'Abstraction' (1949/50) despite such clear representational elements as ladders and skulls, his oscillating rather finding a midpoint seems to cover it. And what's interesting is that it's not just the figurative works that work, but it's the figuration that makes them. (Some of the large abstracts frankly verge on the self-parodic.) De Kooning said “flesh was the reason paint was invented”, and in fact seems less interested in than fixated on the subject.

For example, 'Pink Angels' (1945, above) is based on the classical genre of the nude. (Anfam believes he has found the Titian it is based on.) And the tradition of the nude was of course static and contemplative. De Kooning plays with this, giving us what looks like a parked posterior in the lower right, but turning giving the rest of the composition over to a twisting tumult of forms. Is the main torso attached to that potato head which seems to be looking back at it? Or is another figure sticking it's neck in? Whose eye is that in the lower left?

And there seems something provisional, almost sketch-booky, about those criss-crossing black lines. Some forms look to be sketched out but then abandoned. Are the certainties of earlier eras being reduced to their delineations of the human body, and then parodied with these grotesque forms?

And yet there remains something sumptuous and eroticised about all that piggy-pink, bordered by those sinuous curves. De Kooning often based elements of his women portraits on cut-outs from glamour magazines. Francis Bacon was painting similarly fractured human forms in England around this time, sometimes based on classical works, sometimes bisected by linear frames, sometimes against lurid backgrounds. But his images were more nakedly disturbing, without this note of eroticisation.

‘Woman I’, (1949/50) was, as the name might suggest, the first in an important series for de Kooning. The famous story is that he kept reworking it over some eighteen months, before giving up. Then when the art historian Meyer Schapiro saw it, with accounts often suggesting a chance encounter, he was encouraged to take it up again. The series stemmed from there.

But what's significant is that the paintings aren’t the result of that long process, the answer de Kooning came to after all that working out. The paintings are instead a record of that working out. The unerased charcoal lines of 'Pink Angels' have now become oil scrawls, and there's little if any of it's vivid blocks of colour under those occluded daubs. The thing looks messy, convulsive, less unfinished than inherently unstable. The canvas doesn't capture the expression but the struggle to express.

Norbert Lynton described this series as the “the daughters of 'Demoselles d'Avignon'”, and it's hard not to think of Picasso. Once Cubism started to depict living rather than inanimate objects, it’s analytically divisive eye started to take on a monstrous aspect, however unintended. It’s like dissecting a frog in science class, the teacher describes the spread out innards as part of a mechanism but the child still faints away. This is partly true for Picasso himself, as some of the Cubist planes found their way into later portraits, such as 'Weeping Woman' (1937).

But there's more... Some have suggested that the reason for Picasso's frequent switching of styles was his frequent switching of lovers. As his heart would swing almost with each beat, he'd paint his latest beau lovingly, shortly to be followed by his loathing. Whatever the truth of this, with 'Woman I' it's like the contradictions in 'Pink Angels' aren't resolved but heightened, and de Kooning 's contradictory feelings are fighting for control of the same canvas. It’s “she loves me, she loves me not”, only all at once. It’s trying to depict someone and trying to rub them out trapped in conflict with one another. (Unlike the philandering Picasso, de Kooning had one long but tempestuous marriage. Make of that what you want.)

'Woman as Landscape' (1965/6), with a title either brilliant or infamous, is perhaps the most grotesque of the bunch. The ‘firm flesh’ of classical sculpture, as bound by rules of proportion as is geometry, flies out of control, multiplying itself like cancer cells, bulbously erupting, oozing around the canvas. It’s simultaneously comic and horrific, the very definition of grotesque.

These portraits share a child-like quality. We know the woman in 'Women I' to be a woman not from anything in her features but her exaggerated breasts and her women's clothes. (If those are her shoes and she doesn't just have hooves for feet.) But more, it's as if he's trying faithfully to depict the likeness of a subject but unconsciously unloading his psychological baggage concerning it. And this makes the savagery, the feeling of attack to the mark-making, still more striking.

On first being shown, they generated a debate over whether they were misogynistic or not. It doesn't seem clear why we needed one, the answer stares you in the face. They certainly mark a good point to reflect how few female artists there are in this show. But they’re interestingly misogynistic, they offer insight into the misogynistic mind. The contradictory roles which patriarchal society thrusts onto women, normally made into a woman’s problem, here collide and attempt to overwrite one another.

Up Abstraction Alley

Regular readers might concur that I can take to art or music which might not appeal to the majority. I like to indulgently imagine that, through writing this stuff, every now and then I'll manage to convey to someone else just what I see in something. But ironically, every now and again I'll have pretty much the majority reaction. And in particular my reaction to the artists here runs the gamut, from absolute awe to total indifference.

For example, Franz Klein's furious stabs with painter's brushes just look to me like something Tony Hancock would throw up to briefly become the toast of Paris. True, they look expressive. But they only look expressive. Yes, you can see them as a frozen record of a gesture. But so what? It seems doubly perplexing that Klein has such a name when others in the show, such as Pousette-Dart, Smith or Tobey are less-known.

Yet even Klein stands above Barnet Newman and Ad Reinhart. The only achievement I could find in their blocks, squares and stripes of colour was that they were able to drive themselves further down the blind alley where Mondrian seemed to have already hit the back wall, an achievement of sorts even if only of obstinacy. (And yet Reinhardt's cartoons could be fabulous! Go figure.)

In their case I just looked across the walls, shrugged and pretty much passed on to the next room. There seems nothing expressive to these abstracts at all. It might be bizarre to have such wide-ranging responses to a show given over to a single movement, in the case of de Kooning to different pictures by the same artist. But perhaps, due to their afore-mentioned fixation with individualism, it's inevitable. And it's also, in it's way, appealing. It suggests there's no schema to be relied on, that the whole thing's wide open, that each individual work must be looked at and assessed on its own merits. This may be more true of visual art than other art forms, and if so it's to be welcomed.

A much-heralded hexagonal room, literally the centrepiece of the exhibition, is given over to Mark Rothko's colour fields – for example 'No. 4 (Yellow, Black, Orange on Yellow/ Untitled)' (1953, above). Being in this room was, I'll concede, the closest I've come to liking Rothko. (Though it may have been achieved by comparison to what went before.) The works seem to shimmer, almost to hover. There are paintings which come out at you, and paintings which draw you in – like portals to some other space. Rothko draws you in. And the feeling is somehow multiplied by multiple paintings - facing each other, like a room of doors.

This room was described by Laura Cumming in the Guardian as “a quasi-chapel”, and there is an association with the coloured light of stained glass windows. Yet his 'Gethsemane' (1944), placed earlier in the show, looks like a Surrealist work with the irreligion taken out. While these colour fields can look like religious works with the religion taken out, like some New Age guru emitting meaningful-sounding stuff. Notably the guide, which has up till now said entirely sensible things, starts on stuff like “his art should in a sense 'defeat' the walls with his plenitude”. Yeah, deep...

Arguably it's Rothko's very accomplishment which makes him seductive, and therefore more dangerous than inferior artists such as Klein. Rothko's the Pied Piper who can lead you lost. It leaves you thinking Walter Benjamin was right after all, that art escaped religion when it beached against modernity and Rothko was left decorating the empty hulk as everyone else settled in the new land.

Which seems to link to the famous story of his withdrawing his work from the Seagram building after finding out it was to be hung in the restaurant. Leading to the inevitable response - get over it! Rothko may mark Abstract Expressionism at it's most extreme. He faithfully reproduced many of Expressionism's self-romanticisations, such as the depiction of the artist as being beyond society and in touch with more eternal concerns, and his art thereby being above and beyond mere commerce.

So many, in fact, that all Pop Art had to do was to duplicate Dada's withering critique. (Well, with populism replacing the communism.) Suddenly it was squaresville to have seriousness of purpose or heroic ambition, to sit in your studio contemplating a shade of blue. Suddenly it was de rigeur to be flip and ironic. You didn’t make art by contemplating the depths of your soul, but by taking surface features of the world around you and recombining them, in short by finding virtues in what Ab Ex had seen as problems.

And it was a similar story with Conceptualism. How to fill those vast shoes Ab Ex had left us? Don't bother, just kick them away! If they made gargantuan, aura-emitting canvases we respond with works which are in themselves incidental – or quite possibly entirely absent. If their art was to do with the psyche of the individual artist, with art as therapy, we'll make art as a cultural product, which make it's points calmly and clearly with none of that self-important tomfoolery. In the recent Tate show 'Conceptual Art in Britain', we saw how critic and Ab Ex champion Clement Greenberg was a target.

And besides, even what was positive about Rothko was later supplanted by works such as Carlos Cruz-Diez’s instillation 'Chromosaturation' (2010), part of the Haywards' 'Light Show', in which three connected rooms were saturated with the three primary colours. If Rothko offered us a door into a colour field, Cruz-Diez opened it and pulled us through.

Expressionism Goes Fractal (Pollock)

But if this seems to be shaping up into an overarching rule, where too much abstraction is just too bad, it's time to come to the grand exceptions. Let's remember the image on my visual art blog page, the one picked to sum up the art that I like, is a Pollock. (Not one in this show, but still a Pollock.)

This show was pre-announced with the news that his 'Mural' and 'Number 11, 1952', better known and henceforth referred to as 'Blue Poles', were “to be united for the first and probably only time”. And it not only dedicates it's largest room to them but hangs them on facing walls, inviting us to compare them.

Certainly, both are affecting works. I'll often notice other gallery-goers spending more time reading the indicia than looking at the works. They'll quickly glance over the thing they nominally came to see, and they're off. Yet with the Pollocks people knew to linger, trying to take in the immensity of the thing. We are, however, better off contrasting them...

'Mural' was painted in 1943, when Pollock was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim to cover a wall of her Manhattan townhouse. It remained his largest work, and in the words of curator David Anfam “jump-started abstract expressionism”. It is a great work. And yet placed in this context, when we can see what comes ahead, what's most noticeable is how rooted in representation it is. Another work is called 'Enchanted Forest' (1947), and like it this is a forest. You can see the canopy at the top of the picture, the accumulated debris of the ground at the base, the black thrusts of the tree trunks and branches taking up the centre. The colour scheme is verdant greens and autumnal yellows.

And there are ways in which 'Blue Poles' (1952, above) is similar, thick black lines running over and connecting swirls of colour. The 'poles' were even made by applying planks of wood. And yet now the forest is truly gone...

Formally the change is that this is one of Pollock’s drip works, where he'd flick the brush above the canvas without directly touching it. These works have sometimes been called Fractal Expressionism, an evocative name as one effect is that you never know when to stop looking. Bald canvas is visible at the edges. Yet there still seems to be no back to the picture, no canvas wall for your eye to come to rest against, just further fractal-like recessions. And the harder you look, the foreground seems to move out, into the room with you, in almost a 3D effect.

Lou Reed once said that with 'Metal Machine Music' he wanted to create a long composition not based around repeated beats but which never stood still - “like the universe”. And the poles, the most immediately striking part of the painting, grow nodes at intervals - like the lines which join up the bright stars in maps of constellations. (Those long central strokes appear in other works, for example 'Phosphoresence', 1947.) But then, if a clear night, as you keep watching the sky the once-dark background behind those constellations becomes richer and richer. With Anselm Kiefler, as he left the earth behind and grew more cosmic, he left me behind. But with Pollock it's the exact opposite. His heart belonged out there in the stars.

Except that 'Blue Poles' isn't depicting the universe, even in part, the way 'Mural' is in part depicting a forest. Note in the Lou Reed quote he says “like” the universe, and similarly with Pollock this is merely an analogy. Pollock is painting the cosmic in the other, broader sense of the word – the immensity and irresolvable complexity of everything, the way we struggle to comprehend what's inside an atom and at the same time look hopefully up at the sky. Pollock was more like Mark Tobey than he was Gorky or de Kooning, his desire was to describe the indescribable and abstraction was his chosen means. He could take abstraction and make it work.

And there's another point which seems associated. People hear of his drip painting method and imagine a kind of rock’n’roll painter, throwing up works in some state of absolute abandon while swigging from a bottle of JD, outside of and against any artistic tradition. ’Time’ magazine’s nickname for him, Jack the Dripper, best conveys this. The fact that he died in 1956, when rock’n’roll was still starting up, should tell us how accurate any of that was.

In fact Pollock was a deliberative painter, who tried out his drip technique before he’d exhibit any of the works, ensuring he’d mastered it like a neophyte labours to master a brush. (And this was precisely his innovation. Ernst had already dripped paint onto works, but used it as a random element he could then paint around.) And, having invested all that time and energy, he did not always take kindly to the suggestion he just chucked paint about for a living, barking back “no chaos damn it!” A page on the Tate’s website specifically debunks Pollock myths, including “probably the most absurd and easily refutable fantasy… that he… created his best works while drinking.”

And in fact we need to refute all this from an earlier point. When you hear Harold Rosenberg coined the term 'action painting' the same year as 'Blue Poles', it might seem auspicious. Yet when the Telegraph describes it in terms of “spiralling skeins of paint that recorded the physical reach of [Pollock’s] body and arm” they're reciting the received wisdom. We’ve been trained to see those arcs of paint like the motion lines in comic strips.

But in fact, unlike 'Mural', rather than picture it being flung into life you can't really conceive of 'Blue Poles' being painted at all. I know full well how it was done, there's abundant film of him at work. (While almost any art book can be guaranteed to have a still of him.) But I can't stand before the painting and apply the knowledge, I can't visualise it in the process of happening. Rather than see the expressive gestures you do in Klein, or the ceaseless overpainting of de Kooning, it seems almost impossible to trace it back to the hand of the artist who made it. There's no unpicking it like a jumper. It's too intricate, too endlessly layered. Even the human touch of the signature, in the lower left, looks slightly incongruous. The thing looks just there, impossible to trace back to it’s construction.

Above all, and contrary to the stereotype of An Ex angst, 'Blue Poles’ is not melancholic but rhapsodic. To quote Norbert Lynton it's “graceful rather than violent or wild, rhythmic rather than random, balletic and mystical in effect”. True, every word.

Cosmic and Visceral (Clyfford Still)

If Pollock has the largest room of the show and Rothko the centrepiece, Clyfford Still is given the next size up. Plus it's a piece of a Still, 'PH-950' (1950) making up one version of the poster (see up top). He seems to be the the third of the show's self-styled hits. It's an audacious move to so big up an artist most won't have even heard of. But it's one which delivers. A great favourite of mine was 'PH-150' (1950), detail below.

Still seems to have been an individualist among individualists, a maverick even compared to mavericks. In 1961, keen to distance himself from the art market, he moved from New York and spent the rest of his life on a Maryland farm. While his conditions for showing his work were so exacting they pretty much guaranteed it wasn't shown at all. Happily, things seem to be changing with a dedicated Still museum existing in Denver since 2004. (From which the works on show here were loaned.)

If Pollock's signature mark was the fleck, Still's was the tear. To the point where I initially assumed he'd been influenced by the look of torn wallpaper and peeling paint. (Perhaps influenced by a photo in the previous room, Minor White's 'Resurrection (Peeled Paint on Window, Jackson Street, Produce Area, SanFrancisco', 1951.) The idea of blown-up images of something everyday set against Pollock's cosmic macroscopes seemed appealing. And in fact something still clings to it in my mind, even if it's an official wrong answer.

In fact, they seem intended as something more geological. (Which of course still offers a complementary opposite to Pollock, just of a different sort.) The show describes them as “by turn visceral and cosmic”, and they seem redolent of the way the geography we treat as facts on the ground is in fact the result of rupturous violence, mountain ranges thrusting themselves into being. The show speaks of “verticality being Still's enduring leitmotif”, representing “spiritual transcendence”, navigating”yawning abysses” like seismographs of soul journeys.

Despite such talk, despite their vast size, they don't seem at all ostentatious and self-important. In fact, in another comparison with Pollock, it's hard to imagine them being composed. They look too immediate to be deliberated. The best works are those where the colour is applied flatly, without a 'painter's touch'. They all have those alphanumeric titles, as if just named after catalogue numbers. Like all great artists, Still can make the whole thing look easy.

Time was when I saw American Abstract Expressionism as a load of self-important, man-paining flim-flam designed to impress art critics, with Pollock and de Kooning as the exceptions that proved the rule. True, I had already gone past that not altogether nuanced view. But one advantage of this group show is that it brings to the fore some of the lesser-known names. Some of which have cropped up here. Others were more deservedly forgotten, but that's life.

But putting on a show now also creates a direct comparison between our era and theirs. And times have long since shifted from the days when Ab Ex occupied the cutting edge, championed by critics and often derided by a bemused public. The two have effectively swapped sides, almost as much as they have over Impressionism. And these works are so at odds with today’s post-modern art market they confirm the old adage about the past being another country. Which makes now a very good time to look at them again.

Once Ab Ex seemed to have trounced all criticism, been given it's head and gone off the deep end, and Pop Art seemed a necessary corrective. But for us it’s the reverse. And the surprising thing is that many reviews did seem to acknowledge that. To quote the Telegraph again: “At a time when the virtual world has rendered most aspects of life slightly ersatz and people crave authenticity, the art here has all the realness and rawness anybody could possibly want.” Yup.

Waldemar Januszczak on the show... exhibition video on Pollock...

...and on Still...

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