The Royal Academy in London is hosting a historic exhibition on the movement known as Abstract Expressionism (24/09/2016 – 02/01/2017), which grew in and around New York City in the 1940s and is considered the first American art movement of true international significance. As such, the development of Abstract Expressionism helped displace the epicentre of the global art world from Europe to the US, with many of the artists associated with the movement (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning or Mark Rothko, for example) scaling the heights of international acclaim in the 20th century and their distinctive painting styles becoming hits with audiences all over the world.
The RA exhibition starts with exploratory work by members of the movement, some of whom were Americans, others European émigrés. It is immediately apparent that these artists were strongly influenced by European-born currents from the preceding decades, in particular surrealism and the work of artists associated with the German Bauhaus such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. The surrealist influence is linked to the interest many of these artists (like Jackson Pollock) had in replacing the artist's conscious effort with automatic, random or unconscious processes, which resulted in what is sometimes known as 'action painting'.
The exhibition takes the visitor through the work of many of the main representatives of the movement, including Arshile Gorky, Pollock, Lee Krasner, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, Robert Motherwell, de Kooning, Rothko, and others. Of course these artists have been marketed to the stars, and at the mention of their work (and this goes too for the RA exhibition curators' running commentary) superlatives fly thick and fast. If it places me in a minority of one, I must confess that, to me, the unbridled adulation and the huge claims to universal themes worthy of a Greek tragedy end up feeling a bit tiresome. Personally I am left a little cold by the output of painters like Gorky, Pollock or de Kooning, and I can't help feeling that much of what these artists achieved had been done with more feeling, imagination, depth and variety (if generally on a smaller scale) by the likes of Kandinsky and Klee, several decades earlier.
This is not to say that I did not enjoy visiting this immensely instructive exhibition, and in particular I was often impressed by work I was least familiar with, like Tworkov's, Lee Krasner's, or Joan Mitchell's. I also found the sense of composition in Franz Kline's chromatically Spartan paintings very powerful, as is the monumentality of Clyfford Smith's work, which (as noted in the exhibition) invites a comparison with the landscape of the Western United States where he grew up and lived for most of his life.
Undoubtedly a blockbuster of a show, and not to be missed.