Abstract Expressionism, what is it? The artists defined as being Abstract Expressionist are a disparate bunch all producing very different work. Now is the time to decide what you think Abstract Expressionism is all about as the Royal Academy has put on the first big exhibition devoted to the genre for over six decades Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are all there.
Two world wars and a global economic depression marked the first half of the twentieth century. In America, the way that some artists responded to that violence and dislocation has been dubbed Abstract Expressionism. Each one of them responded in very different ways. Suffice to say that their angst was expressed in an abstract manner. You won’t find many depictions of objects or people here. Each room is devoted to a different artist, a wise move given the lack of a single theme. The exception to this single artist theme is the David Smith sculptures that pop up throughout the exhibition creating many interesting frames for the work of other artists.
Pollock and Rothko with their dribbles and blocks of colour are familiar from reproductions. Ad Reinhardt was not a name that I was completely familiar with before visiting the Abstract Expressionism exhibition. He does blocks of colour. At first glance you look and think, I could splash on a single colour of emulsion onto a large canvas and sell it. Take time and stand and look at the red or black canvases. They are not simply black or red. Different tones of redness and blackness begin to swirl in front of you. Definitely more than emulsion slapped onto canvas.
The room before the gift shop is dominated by four enormous canvases. That’s the thing about Abstract Expressionism, it is by and large huge. These are not works to be hung in regular domestic settings. They need huge corporate spaces. Back to the final room. These canvases are cheerily yellow. At first glance they put me in mind of the Monet waterlilies that filled this space a few months ago. Just as well as that is where Joan Mitchell got her inspiration for Salut Tom. Monet gave us a blur of ultimately recognizable pond, here we get the same feeling but no recognizable flowers. Salut Tom had me leaving Abstract Expressionism with a smile on my face.
Smiling but peckish. Queues snaked around all of the cafes at the Royal Academy so I set off out into Piccadilly to see what I could find. St James’s churchyard had a clutch of food stalls. I settled for a spicy chicken bao bun and very nice it was too.
Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
24 September 2016 – 2 January 2017
Admission: £17 adults, concessions available, children and Friends of the RA go free.
Open: Daily 10am – 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)