The Greatest Hits of AbEx

Abstract Expressionism was a phenomenon

“Wow… wow…” said my art husband ‘J’, as we moved from room to room, “the Royal Academy exhibition is the “greatest hits” of Abstract Expressionism”. RA curator Edith Devaney started our tour with the statement that Abstract Expressionism was a phenomenon, rather than an art movement per se. There was no spokesperson for the movement, such as Breton for surrealism, but rather the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was imposed on the artists of that period.  


Arshile Gorky’s Water of the Flowery Mill (1944)

Gestural brush-strokes, immersive scale, spontaneity

Abstract Expressionism was the term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters after World War II including the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and 1950s. Abstract Expressionist artists’ paintings are often characterized by gestural brush-strokes, immersive scale, the impression of spontaneity and the human experience.


Pollock, Rothko and Clyfford Still – the most impressive rooms

The RA exhibition starts with self-portraits and unusual works by the ‘stars’ of abstract expressionism. Some rooms are dedicated to one artist, some are organised thematically, while welded sculptures of David Smith punctuate the exhibition. Perhaps the most impressive rooms are those dedicated to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.


Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943. Oil and casein on canvas. 243.21 x 603.25 cm. The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016.

Pollock – a key figure for gestural painting

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), the chief pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, majestically fills several rooms in the exhibition. Pollock was a key figure for gestural painting, developing a technique of dripping trails of paint onto a canvas laid flat on the floor. His early works are shown depicting still figurative elements, as well as his wife Lee Krasner’s “The Eye is the First Circle”, which curator Devaney was keen to give a top spot to.


Colour field and action painting reconciled

The RA reconciles colour field and action painting. Art critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg divided Abstract Expression into two subsections: “action painting” as in the physical act of painting and the dynamic act of creation (Janet Sobel, Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline); and “colour field” painting with large areas of flatly applied colour (Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still).

Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955. Oil on canvas. 158.1 x 204.9 cm. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Gift of Claire B. Zeisler 1976.39. Photo Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photography: Joe Ziolkowski © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015.

Exceptional loan from the Clyfford Still Museum

Clyfford Still (1904-1980) was one of four pioneers of Abstract Expressionism and credited with laying the groundwork for the group, as his shift from figurative painting to abstraction occurred in 1938-42 – earlier than for his colleagues. Only 5% of his production was in circulation, explained Devaney, while the remaining 95% was left to a city that could house a museum for the artist. That museum is the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, and we are lucky enough to see a sample from the museum at the RA. 

Abstract Expressionism runs at the Royal Academy until 2 January 2017 and February 3, 2017 – June 4, 2017 at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. 



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