Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism
24 September 2016 — 2 January 2017
The Royal Academy of Arts

Clyfford Still, PH-950, 1950.  Oil on canvas, 233.7 x 177.8 cm.  Clyfford Still Museum, Denver (c) City and County of Denver / DACS 2016. Photo courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO

The Royal Academy of Arts presents the first major exhibition of Abstract Expressionism to be held in the UK in almost six decades. With over 150 paintings, sculptures and photographs from public and private collections across the world, this ambitious exhibition encompasses masterpieces by the most acclaimed American artists associated with the movement – among them, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Phillip Guston, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Aaron Siskind, David Smith and Clyfford Still, as well as lesser-known but no less vital artists.

The selection aims to re-evaluate Abstract Expressionism, recognising that though the subject is often perceived to be unified, in reality it was a highly complex, fluid and many-sided phenomenon. Likewise, it revises the notion of Abstract Expressionism as based solely in New York City by addressing such figures on the West Coast as Sam Francis, Mark Tobey and Minor White.

To ensure an exhibition for the 21st century, informed by new thinking, Abstract Expressionism re-examines the two main strands into which these artists have often been grouped in the past. Namely, the so-called ‘colour-field’ painters, such as Rothko and Newman, versus the ‘gesture’ or ‘action painters’, epitomised by de Kooning and Pollock. The art of the former has been held to focus on the contemplative or sublime use of colour, whereas the latter supposedly demonstrated spontaneity and improvisation in their work through bold gestural mark-making. Yet these categories are simplistic, belying the deeper concerns that linked many of the artists.

For example, various Abstract Expressionists developed the ‘all-over composition’ by rejecting the formal concept of an image with a single or central focus. Instead, they thought in terms of energised fields, whether of vibrant colour or linear dynamism. Concerns such as myth-making, the sublime, monochrome and an urge to stress the human presence even in abstraction also connected the artists. Similarly, their creations challenged conventional notions of scale with dimensions that ranged from minute intimacy to epic grandeur – dramatic innovations that the exhibition highlights.

Lending from its renowned collection for the first time, the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, which holds 95% of the artist’s work, has loaned nine major paintings to the exhibition, establishing the artist at the very forefront of Abstract Expressionism. The paintings by Clyfford Still are presented in a dedicated gallery within the exhibition.

Jackson Pollock’s monumental Mural, 1943 (University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa) and Blue Poles, 1952 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) are displayed in the same gallery for the first time, a juxtaposition unlikely to ever be repeated. Further highlights include Arshile Gorky’s Water of the Flowery Mill, 1944 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Willem de Kooning’s Woman II, 1952 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York); Franz Kline’s Vawdavitch, 1955 (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago); Mark Rothko’s No. 15, 1957 (Private Collection); Lee Krasner’s The Eye is the First Circle, 1960 (Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York); and David Smith’s Hudson River Landscape, 1951 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Works by artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Lee Krasner and Ad Reinhardt also feature amongst others. In addition to Aaron Siskind and Minor White, the photographers include Harry Callahan, Herbert Matter and Barbara Morgan.

Dr David Anfam, co-curator of Abstract Expressionism said: “Abstract Expressionism explores this vast phenomenon in depth and across different media, revealing both its diversity and continuities as it constantly pushed towards extremes. It brings together some of the most iconic works from around the world in a display that is unlikely to be repeated in our lifetime.”


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