Saturday 29 April 2023


Whitechapel Gallery, London

“I paint what I am”
- Etel Adnan

To The Other Half Of the Story

After the Royal Academy’s sprawling, gargantuan retrospective on American Abstract Expressionism, surely that epic tale was at last told. In fact, as the Whitechapel now informs us, it was literally only half the story.

I did mention, if only in passing, the dearth of women artists on its walls. There’s no going back and counting now but, checking David Anfam’s book on the Ab Ex era, of 169 illos five are by women. (Split between Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, who seem the twin exceptions to prove this rule. Krasner got ‘Living Colour’ a genuinely awesome show at the Barbican recently, and Frankenthaler ‘Radical Beauty’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.)

In which case you might wonder what Michael West and George Hartigan are doing here. The answer is, figuring there was no other way round it, they took on male names. And if that makes them sound more like Nineteenth century novelists than modern artists, Hartigan even took her adopted name from George Eliot. Lee (born Lenore) Krasner did this too, we’re just more used to hearing her name. While Elaine de Kooning signed her work the less specific but equally un-giveaway EDK.

Not that this worked particularly well. Several reviews claimed more than half of these works had never been publicly been shown in the UK before. I failed to find many images on-line in any form, but did discover several of the artists don’t have their own Wikipedia page.

But, not content with that, this show takes on another wrong by adding another word to it’s title. Abstract Expressionism as a practice preceded the American movement by decades, but they took over the term as surely as they did Hawaii. (And at about the same time.) Much like the Tate’s recent ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’ show, this goes for a more global reach. (When artists named below aren’t American, I’ll flag them up.)

And even if you’re some G-beebies viewer who wails at ‘wokeness’ for a hobby, if you like art then surely what you want to see is good art. And if you’re missing out on good art because of some absurd and outmoded restriction, it should occur to you that what you’re doing is missing out.

Without The Intermediary of Images

A quick re-cap on what Ab Ex is… Too often, people’s first reaction is that artists are strangely constraining themselves, restricting what they can do, all to live up to some hifalutin’ theory they’ve devised. But that’s not it at all. Like so many other Modernist movements, it’s more a back-to-basics approach, expunging the weight of tradition, going back to an art which is about making marks on a surface. It had become necessary to, as Ida Barbarigo put it, “unlearn how to paint.” Rather than narrow options it expands possibility. And the boiled-down, doing-stuff title of this show does convey this quite well.

The result is what Else Fischer-Hansen calls “psychological painting”. The artist gets over her state of mind directly, without the intermediary of images. The marks on the canvas act as a seismograph of her mental state. We don’t even need to know what the artist is thinking, we can just see what she is feeling. Such is the stress on this that at times it feels like the physicality of paint is almost fetishised. A little like ectoplasm with mediums, the fluid stuff becomes their link between the intangible and material world.

Was the effect of this good or bad? The answer is yes. As the great Mark E Smith once said about punk: “the great thing is, anyone can do it. And the terrible thing is, anyone can do it.” And as I said of the Academy show “my reaction to the artists here runs the gamut, from absolute awe to total indifference.”

While pretty much every review I read of this show remarked on how many artists there were (over eighty), and how that made things overwhelming, but pointed out that at the same time many of them weren’t much cop. And of course pretty much everyone disagreed with pretty much everyone else as to which were the also-rans. (Including the top two. I can be in absolute awe of Krasner. Yet while this show starts off with Frankenthaler, like she’s a draw for the crowds, my response was absolute indifference.)

But let’s stay on the upside, at least for now. It’s remarkable how this simple idea leads to such a wide variety of approaches. Dusti Bonge’s ’The Beckon’ (1956, above) is a highly composed images, dominated by a series of descending vertical strokes. The fact that it’s so clearly painted makes those descending lines into a statement. The colours are also carefully chosen, with bright white pushing to the front, brown and then black placed at the back.

Whereas Korean-born Wook-kyung Choi’s ’Untitled’ (1960, above) is riotously overloaded. It’s something like looking at an over-flyposted wall, with a mass of shapes and forms half-glimpsed, jostling one another like a crowd where everyone in it is calling out at you. Could that be a black figure, for example, just peering out for the side of that top green patch? (The gallery used a different work by Choi, also ’Untitled’, as their main image for the show. But I preferred this one.)

While Choi takes what would otherwise be static forms and juxtaposes them, British painter Gillian Ayres’ ’Distillation’ (1957) is convulsive - not just dynamic in effect but born out of dynamism. It’s hard to credit that it isn’t moving even as you look at it, blasting out from some point in the lower centre. The term ‘Big Bang’ to explain the birth of our universe was coined in 1949 by Fred Hoyle, and this is the era where it came to win out over the earlier steady state model. Ayers isn’t illustrating such a moment, but the sense of dynamism as fundamental to things is surely not a coincidence.

(I had resolved, in the show’s spirit of discovery, to include only artists new to me. Of which there’s not exactly a shortage. And Ayers appeared in the Barbican’s equally revelatory ‘Post-War Modern’. But her work there, at least the one I picked on, was quite different to the one I’m using here. So my rule’s bent, but not broken.)

Then, in ’Reminiscences’, (1964, above) Chinyee (Chinese) paints shapes as individually indistinct as Ayers, but in amuch more contemplative style. Like a soft-focus photograph taken to extremes, each colour and shape seems to blend into the next, with the result it recedes rather than leap out at you. You could be forgiven for thinking it would resolve into an image, perhaps a nature scene, if you only squinted at it long enough. Combined with the warmth of the colours, the effect of this is beguiling. Notably it doesn’t have the immediate, action-based titles of Bonge or Ayers, and hints at how memory is simultaneously comforting and fallible, each perhaps enabling the other.

Ab Ex was strongly Surrealist influenced, Sonja Sekula among them. But ’7am’ (above, 1948/9) is at least as much Futurist. With a surface of sharp delineating lines in a loose grid pattern, it would look like some kind of blueprint if there wasn’t such a surfeit of them. Then, with the softer shapes behind them, there seems a near-unguessable amount of pictorial depth. Different pictorial devices seem to exist at once, as if clamouring for our attention. To the lower right is a reasonably realised arch bridge, while other shapes are abstract. It seems to lead up to two dominant towers, like looking at a cityscape. But behind them appear the bases for an arched roof.

It’s a classic Futurist device… too much information, delivered in too many different ways, capturing the way the city is itself collage-like. It evokes the city as something dynamic, not built of bricks and concrete but made out of motion. (Like many an artist, Sekula moved to and was inspired by New York. But more than a decade before this was painted.)

…with so many artists on show you could just keep going with this. But by now the point should be made. Ab Ex is an approach not a rigid style.

Art Is A Language You Can’t Read

As we’ve seen, in Ab Ex’s first and strongest commandment, images are ruled out, or at least de-prioritised. With the result many works aren’t titled, titled ’Untitled’, numbered or just named after the colours used. After all, if you can say it, why bother with painting it?

Yet within the picture frame, words are often retained - but made into symbols. As we saw at the Academy show, this often took the form of (normally made up) ancient hieroglyphs. In a kind of illusion born of distance, you could imagine they didn’t just contain wisdom unknown to us but wisdom inexpressible in the humdrum, everyday alphabet we used. In a grass-is-greener effect, the language which sees to say the most is the one you’re not using.

Yet the Argentine artist Sarah Grilo does something different. ’Not Even One More Day’ (1966, above) is so large it’s like looking at a wall. Except the wall itself has been removed, with the signs, posters and graffiti which might have adorned it remaining up. About every form of writing is used, from typeset to outright scribble. Occasionally a complete word can be spotted, but mostly there’s fragments. So our own alphabet, one of the most familiar things we have, is presented back to us in this defamiliarised way. The ‘magic’ of language, which normally just dissolves into its function, is floated before us and so foregrounded.

Is Art Angst?

Let’s circle back to the women artist theme… With this sort of thing, there’s a balance to be struck. Primarily, women’s art is not a genre. (Or men’s art is as well, a claim made by nobody ever.) Women artists are artists, and each should be seen in terms of her own art. On the other hand, if they’re going to do exactly the same stuff as the male artists, only more of it, we’re not really gaining anything.

And here my uncharacteristic dalliance with positivity, which was never going to last forever, hits some hard realities. Because some of the problems with Ab Ex weren’t to do with the hang-ups of individual artists; they were widespread across the movement.

Tom Waits once said “bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering”. And if he’d seen some of the works here, he’d have added bad painting. Noting that much of the Academy show was ‘manpainy’, I wondered if women artists might escape this self-regarding trap of privatised emotional states. And true enough, few of the works we’ve seen so far fall into that. As the show says of Ayres’ art, it “reflected how she claimed to see the world, in ebullient shapes and colours.”

But you could say that for many of the male artists at the Academy show. The problem was recurrent, perhaps persistent, but not inherent. And it turns out we’ve been heading for that fall all along, as the show devotes one of it’s four sections to angst. A movement so fixated on the bombastic business of the artist making her mark, then leaving it there for all to see, perhaps it was never going to entirely escape.

And while there are works in this section which do work, you feel most of them do it by not really belonging in this section. A rare exception is Spanish artist Juana Frances’ ’No. 49’ (1960, above). Part of the appeal is her use of non-art materials such as sand and grit. But more, in a movement fixated upon the touch of the artist, her works don’t necessarily look made. They could have just been subject to some natural process, possibly even by accident.

And this defuses that sense of the grand artistic statement. We can just look at an environment that seems abraded and scarred, ravaged and denuded as a moonscape. (You don’t get anything near the full effect of any of these works from thumbnails. But in this case it may be doing no more than proving the work actually exists.)

Gesticulating With Brushes (Or Sometimes Without) 

Wook-kyung Cho said “I dash into the canvas and develop various situations without any conception or any plan.” And rather than first planning their way through sketches, artists normally found the painting as they worked on the canvas. You improvised in order to compose. You might strike lucky and find your work quickly. If you didn’t you could just keep going, until the point you looked up and liked what you saw. But all of this improvisational method doesn’t stop the work being composed, even if its not consciously thought out. Painting’s advantage is that its a deliberative medium, allowing for pause and reflection, for both creator and audience.

So it’s less a leap and more of impasse between this and the notion of a canvas as a record of an action. Wanting to know the gestures the artist made during composition, that’s like asking how Hemingway typed. So all these works made this way, they’d seem like a category error even if they didn’t overlap so much with all that individualised angst.

Besides, if you’re going to go about recording gestures there would seem to be better options than canvases. (He said, possibly sarcastically.) There’s an extra room added to the end of this show, described as “a sister exhibition”, called ’Action, Gesture, Performance; Feminism, the Body and Abstraction’. Including the video record of a performance Carolee Scheemann gave in 1974, called ’Up To and Including Her Limits’. She swings on a harness around a bare space, drawing on the walls and floor.

Any value this ever had is now lost to time. But the point is - this is the record of a performance. The ‘finished’ walls she decorated look just like a toddler was let loose with a crayon. And some of the works hung here look like someone just pulled a series of grand and wild strokes before a canvas, mugging for the cameras, then the resultant work was somehow exhibited.

Amaranth Ehrenhalt painted ’Jump In and Move Around' (1961, above), which with it’s medley of upfront colours at least looks like someone is having fun. Though as the title effectively confesses it looks like it was more fun to do than look at, successive colours slapped on a canvas without looking much.

Canadian artist Miriam Schapiro's ’Idyll II’ (1956, above), is superficially similar. But looks like beneath that flurry of mark-making there’s some underlying composition. The indicia tells us that she often started by copying more traditional works, over which she’d overpaint her own efforts. Perhaps this gave her a double opportunity, rubbing out the art of old while borrowing its form.

There’s been a few of these shows lately, trying to rediscover the names blotted out by more orthodox art histories. And they seem a better use of everyone’s time than to reiterate the cast list of the greats all over again. While this is more uneven than some of the others, as always the advantage is also the disadvantage. It’s like busting open a prison camp and watching the mass runaround, there’s simply too many suppressed names to be re-released in one go, and the effect is exhilarating but also overpowering. It needs to be the start of something, it can’t restore a balance simply by itself. But whether these newly remembered names will stay remembered, and more work by them will be shown in the future, only time will tell.

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