Saturday 19 November 2016

Tackling AbEx

My taste for Abstract Expressionism having been revived by my recent visit to the Guggenheim in Venice, I was inevitably going to visit the Royal Academy's blockbuster exhibition sooner or later. I reckoned I was feeling strong enough to face twelve rooms of AbEx yesterday, so off I went to Burlingon House - where I was delighted to find a complete absence of queues (if they'd managed to get Monet into the title - From Monet to Pollock? - it would have been a different story).
 For a blockbuster, this one was pleasingly uncrowded, with little or no jostling and clear views of the paintings, both close up and at a distance (often the better option with some of these vast canvases). It's a high-impact exhibition of mostly high-impact, large-scale works, and the overall effect can accurately be described as stunning.  Though it was interesting, enlightening even, to see so much Abstract Expressionism in one place, I was left wondering if it's the kind of art that lends itself to display on such a massive scale.
 Is a roomful of Jackson Pollocks more or less impressive than a few, carefully selected and hung? I'd say, on the evidence of the roomful at the RA, decidedly less. I'm happy to regard Pollock as a great artist (not Titian great, not Rembrandt great, but modern great), but paintings that are so assertive, so densely busy, so fizzing with energy are hard to take en masse and can too easily feel more like an assault than an aesthetic experience. And Pollock's are among the best paintings in the exhibition - lesser works in these circumstances can seem strenuous, inspissated, melodramatically gestural, almost comic (I must admit I was sometimes wearing a not entirely appropriate smile as I toured the rooms).
 Rothko - of whose greatness I have no doubts - does not come out of this exhibition as well as he should have done. Some very fine examples of his mature work have been gathered, but hanging them in the central hall - a space open on four sides, where all routes through the other rooms meet - does them no favours. Rothkos need an enclosed, peaceful, womb-like space to bring out their mysterious beauty - and they need carefully modulated, dimmish light. The central gallery is less brightly lit than the rest of the exhibition, but it's not a good Rothko light.
 So, what did I get out of this exhibition, and why am I glad that I girded my loins and tackled it? Certainly a new appreciation of Arshile Gorky (who gets a room to himself), whose Water of the Flowery Mill [below] struck me as a very beautiful painting indeed (and one which, like all such brushy, juicy, textured work, does not reproduce well). Then there was Willem de Kooning, who is abundantly represented here and whose works I studied with some care. I thought I didn't much care for De Kooning, but the more I saw of him here the more I realised that it was just a case of having come across too many De Koonings of the kind I don't like - the more angry, slashing, grotesque stuff - and too little of the rest. I stood long and happily in front of the glorious, quasi-pastoral Villa Borghese [above] and Untitled (1961) - such colours, such plenitude of light and air, such a relief after the claustrophobia and relentless tension of other De Koonings.
 A good deal of this exhibition left me cold - Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, even Clyfford Still. I was hoping there might be rather less rigour and absolutism, rather more colour for the heck of it, perhaps a bit of Morris Louis, some more decorative Helen Frankenthalers... Abstract Expressionism ends well, though, with a room of late works that includes a vast, light-filled four-canvas mural by Joan Mitchell, Salut Tom, a kind of leave-taking from the movement ('Tom' was the critic Thomas B. Hess, an early champion of Abstract Expressionism). And there are two glorious late De Koonings - ...Whose Name Was Writ in Water and Untitled V (1976). These sent me on my way weary and dazed but convinced that, in the end, I had seen some very fine art.

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