Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

Expressing feelings

Abstract expressionism is the latest artistic style to benefit from a major retrospective, in the current show at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.


Mark Rothko

Steve Latham


Displaying a variety of, very different, approaches, Abstract Expressionism was that post-war, US internationalist style, which was incorporated into the Cold War ideological armory.

Travelling exhibitions, subsidised by the CIA, portrayed them as supreme examples of western that is North American and capitalist civilisation, against the dead orthodoxy of Soviet social realism.

So, as I went in to the gallery, I determined not to be hoodwinked by the hegemonic line. But, when offered a free (actually included in the entry price) head-set, I accepted.

Hoping not to succumb to the curatorial device of ready-made opinions, I can indicate only some of the artists who impacted me. Some were as expected, old favourites; others were surprising.

Jackson Pollock

For example, it is still possible to imagine the shock that Jackson Pollock’s work initially provoked; his drip paintings pulsating with energy and repetitive rhythms.

Clichéd comparison of his work with the improvisation of Jazz and Be-bop is still valid. But also predictable, with a CD of the New York Jazz scene on sale, to take the ‘experience’ home with us.

More unexpected were Franz Kline’s paintings; stark, animated, violent, brush strokes across the canvas, which first prompted the term ‘Action Painting’ to describe this school.

More difficult to like, were Willem de Kooning’s paintings. His portraits of women are thoroughly misogynistic, reducing them to splashes of colour, highlighting his own antipathy.

Franz Kline

De Kooning’s later works illustrate what happens what an abstract expressionist grows old, as he took refuge in the sunny light and pretty colours of the retirement village landscape.

Some became mystical. Barnett Newman, a secularised Jew, for example, eschewed the typical wild brush strokes, in favour of clear lines and firm colours.

With only the ‘line’ to express his spiritual ideas, however, he depended on titles, i.e. words, to explain the meaning to the wooden-headed bourgeois viewer, and purchaser.

Mark Rothko was more mysterious, giving nothing away in his huge canvases, which were designed to give a direct experience not only of the numinous, but of the melancholic as well. In a room devoted to the treatment of blackness, his is perhaps the saddest painting in the entire exhibition.

“Black on grey” looks like a lunar landscape and, produced in the year of his suicide, sums up the bleakness of his personal vision.

Willem de Kooning

The most radically ‘pure’ of the painters turns out to have been Clifford Still; since he refused to sell most of his work during his lifetime.

A product of the American West, his pictures, gigantic colour-fields, depict vast rips in the fabric of the universe.

The Abstract Expressionists thus sought to rescue the emotional, the raw and the irrational, in the face of cold, calculating, commercial culture.

As such, they are very different from contemporary conceptual art: cool, detached, ironic. These lost effects of the postmodern could do with a dose of this expressionist aesthetic therapy.

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