Review: Abstract Expressionism opens at the Royal Academy London


Abstract Expressionism, which opened at the Royal Academy in London last week, provides an unrivalled opportunity to see major and monumental works by the group's key and peripheral figures under one roof. While numerous solo shows have surfaced in recent years, this is the first major Abstract Expressionist group show to be held in Europe in sixty years.


Coined by Robert Coates in 1946, the group's name echoes the emotional intensity of German Expressionism and the distilled forms of European Abstraction. Just as Abstract Expressionism emerged amidst the conflict and chaos of the mid-twentieth century, these movements aimed to exorcize and erase the underpinnings of societies that saw the First World War and Russian Revolution.


Yet to see the group's abstraction as a purely formal pursuit is to overlook the underlying humanism of many of these works. One recalls Mark Rothko's words: "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on... And if you, as you say, are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point!" Rothko's expansive canvases fill an entire room of the exhibition. Immersing the viewer in colour and soft, simple rectangular forms, the works provide a meditative experience, enhanced by the room's dim lighting.


The exhibition brings together an impressive range of works from different points in these artists' careers. Several pivotal pieces chart Hans Hofmann's intense study of abstraction. Focusing on the members' early work, the show's first room includes one of Hofmann's earliest experiments in abstraction (Idolatress I, 1944, no. 14). Anchoring floating forms and swathes of colour within the basic structure of a still life, this painting recalls a similar work that Hofmann painted one year later, which we sold to a collection in Seoul a few months ago. A slightly earlier watercolour by Hofmann, executed circa 1942, is still available and can be viewed here. An example of Hofmann's floating squares, a late and influential aspect of his work, can be seen in the final room.


The exhibition also follows the dramatic shifts in Willem de Kooning's work through several key examples, from his early Pink Angels (c. 1945, no. 25), to his powerful if problematic depictions of women, and his late abstract works. These later works were realised after de Kooning's stay in East Hampton and embrace a lighter palette and more open composition. We recently sold one of these pieces to the same collection in Seoul.


Two pivotal works by Jackson Pollack are also united in a single room: his augural Mural, painted in 1943 for Peggy Guggenheim, and his 1952 Blue Poles. While abstracted rhythmic forms seem to dance across the former, evoking the human figure as it twirls through space, in the later Blue Poles the human body is implied as an extension of the artist's, who physically stood on the canvas as he dripped and pulled masses of paint. In Blue Poles the result is a painting that almost crackles with energy, entrancing the viewer with electric tones and visceral textures.


Clyfford Still's massive canvases, in which paint creates almost tangible spaces and seems to rise and fall in crescendos, are another highlight of the exhibition. Still's works are notoriously difficult to borrow, partly because the terms of his will forbade their sale. As such the RA's exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see his work outside of the USA.


Caroline Marciniak


September 30, 2016