The Abstract Expressionists at the Royal Academy is, hands down, one of the best shows in the recent past. It is structured along a series of rooms dedicated to its most prominent members with a few lateral rooms functioning as a commentary on the main axis which allows the viewer to appreciate the continuities and differences of this group. The show is thoroughly pedagogical but it does not exhaust itself in historical information. Instead it creates visual environments where the viewer can differentiate the different kinds of brushwork and reach to his or her own conclusions. At the level of the textural visuality the show is a feast.
Upon arrival, the tone is set with a dark Jackson Pollock (Untitled Panels C and D – 1937 & 1938) and Mark Rothko paintings which darkness is, a bit too easily presented as an allegory of the Holocaust. The room is ushered on both sides of the entrance by two self-portraits, one by Rothko and another by Arshile Gorky, both, obviously, figurative.
The latter, instead of hands, has abstract blobs of paint and, very early in the show, pushes forward one of the movement main theoretical thesis (the Greenbergian one) according to which illusionism and representation disappear in the hands of flatness. The beauty of this room lies, however, in the way the show’s curators have presented the passage from illusionistic allegorical tragedy into archetypical as in Pollock, De Kooning, Gottlieb and Newman. Rothko’s Interior (1936) allows the viewer to understand that his main preoccupation was not ‘the colour field’ but ‘the painting as object or, better said, as a flat surface’. Far from sheer abstraction, Rothko explores this transforming the painting into an architectural façade. Finally, Clifford Still is introduced as the fourth big one of the group with a rather sculptural (flat) piece.
The second room is dedicated to the great Arshile Gorky, a piece by whom I sold to Alice Walton for her Crystal Waters Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Gorky is shown as a synthesis of, on one hand, cubism and surrealism and, on the other hand, a collapse of the organically convulsive and the classical form. The room evolves from a few amazing graphite and wax crayon drawings from 1945 to his ‘Diary of a Seducer’ (1945) and ‘The Limit’ (1947) where abstraction becomes more and more evident without losing its original surrealist drive. One can perceive close similarities between him and Joan Miro, at this point. In ‘The Orators’, there is a dissolution of the figures with a still life composed in the negative from the projection of the shadows that reminds of De Chirico. The only painting in that room that is not by Gorky is by William De Kooning and allows the viewer a side to side comparison of two ways in which the artists explored the dissolution of the figure into abstraction.
The central room of the exhibition is dedicated to Jackson Pollock where his paintings surround three sculptures by David Smith about whom Michael Fried said that his sculptures are so embedded in the world that if we turn them upside down, the world would follow. Clockwise, one of the most important pieces of the room is not by Pollock but by his wife, Lee Krasner, and shows her as a copycat in a more organised and less chaotic way. This piece is relevant because drip painting has been always associated with the macho that ejaculates on the horizontal canvas that signifies the female. Here, however, we see a woman ‘dancing’ the choreography of the loved one. Next to this Krasner there is a piece by Pollock called ‘Night mist’ (1945) where Greenberg’s mandates are clearly not followed. Its illusionism and spatial depth go against the flatness required from the critic as the essential characteristic of painting. ‘Summer 9A’ (1948) is a narrow and horizontal canvas where the drip paint becomes calligraphic. In these long horizontal pieces, Pollock change the position of his signature that moves from the bottom right to the top left of the pictorial field. Then there are a couple of paintings in enamel and gesso which allows us to see the way the materials were manipulated to create the aforementioned flatness. In other words, with Pollock we can appreciate how the pigment’s materiality becomes the pictorial object. This room is divided into two areas and in the second one there are two monumental horizontal pictures facing each other. On one side there is ‘Blue Poles’ (1952) where those issues explored on the first half are taken to the next level while on the other side there is ‘Enchanted Forest’ (1947) a pivotal piece where the inflection between illusionism and abstraction could be appreciated as in no other Pollock. I think this is one of the most relevant pieces of the show.
From there, the visitor enters an octogonal room where the eye relaxes in front of six amazing Rothkos that seem to surround him as in a Dioramic experience or, if I am allowed, a James-Turrellian one. Each individual piece, however, draws attention to itself as a painterly object faces the viewer as a flat object made of…colour. At this point, the differences in the brushwork between Pollock and Rothko are evident for in the latter it disappears to become somehow ‘industrial’ or ‘objectified’. There is no authorial gesture but the sort of painterly iconicity that reminds of the Flemish Primitivist or the Italian Trecento.
The following room is dedicated to someone who is defined by the curators as an outsider and ends up being the star of the show. I am referring to Clifford Still and his West Coast approach to Abstract Expressionism. His paintings look like topographical maps of the Western desert formations from Colorado, for example. Even his decision to turn these horizontal pieces 90 degrees to make them vertical as an expression of (also Western) New Age spiritualism. With Still, the brushwork disappears to be replaced by an industrial (or design) approach to painting.
Beside the Pollock room and as a commentary to it, there is a room titled ‘Gesture as colour’ where the previous visual debate goes even further to finally clarify things to the viewer. Works by three West Coast Abstract Expressionists are included her: Still, Sam Francis and Mark Tobey. Philip Guston’s ‘Prague’ and its impastoed (Wayne Thibaud’ish) brushwork looks very far away from Gorky’s individualised brushstrokes, Rothko’s and Still’s industrial flatness and Pollock and Krasner’s untouched drips. The inclusion of a work by Helen Frankenthaller and its ‘colour field’ paintings makes this show a wonderful pendiment to the recent Painting 2.0 at the Brandhorst Museum in Munich.
As if this wasn’t enough material for reflecting upon the place of painting in the XX century, the following room is about the ‘Violent Mark’ with the architectural brushstroke of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell’s compositional blob. While the former stains structure the composition and hold the painting, the latter turns the m into expression. The room dedicated to Barnet Newman is revealing for they are shown as totemic object and this reading opens a very productive chapter in the relationship between objectualism and painterliness in New York. Amazing show. J A T