A Review of Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Key 183,   Willem De Kooning,    Woman II   , 1952. Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas, 149.9 x 109.3 cm.   The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

Key 183, Willem De Kooning, Woman II, 1952. Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas, 149.9 x 109.3 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 


Invigorating, intense, emotional and dramatic. The 20th-century art movement of Abstract Expressionism that originated in a world reeling from the uncertainty of the post-war years inevitably resonates with the chaotic political climate of today. It delivers an inspiring message to the creatives that are defining today’s culture, because we can all learn from a time when in the aftermath of destruction and despair, creativity triumphed as a confident response with artists pioneering new techniques in the face of chaos.

One of the most recognisable art movements of the post-war period, Abstract Expressionism really put America on the cultural map. Surprisingly, this is the first exhibition in the UK dedicated to Abstract Expressionism since 1959. This autumn, the Royal Academy aims to highlight the complexity and fluidity of a movement previously thought to be centred around only Jackson Pollock and New York.   Co-curated by Dr. David Anfam - world expert on the subject - the exhibition offers a rare chance to see a broad spectrum of Abstract Expressionist works all together in the same space, allowing the audience to examine the dynamics between different artists. A key aim of the art movement was to engage the viewer with their participation being the essential final component of the artwork; this exhibition allows exactly that. As Anfam notes, Abstract Expressionism was a ‘group phenomenon’ - despite the seeming disparity of the artists involved - thus it feels appropriate that they be exhibited in a group show.


Key 12, Franz Kline,    Vawdavitch   , 1955, Oil on canvas, 158.1 x 204.9 cm,   Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Key 12, Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955, Oil on canvas, 158.1 x 204.9 cm, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago


As an art institution, The Royal Academy have been undoubtedly brilliant in uniting some of the 20th-century’s greatest artworks such as the raw aesthetics of Franz Kline’s thrilling black and white canvases. Willem de Kooning’s primitive explorations of women as landscape coupled femininity of form with an aggressive style of painting, creating a dialogue between the figurative and the abstract that recalls Pablo Picasso. Mark Rothko’s immersive, balanced and serene canvases are contemplative in their use of a deep and primordial palette. Whereas Ad Reinhardt’s phenomenal ‘black’ canvases absorb the viewer and create a darkness that is so inviting it lacks melancholy. I was also enveloped by Barnett Newman’s geometric planes of colour and Robert Motherwell’s raw tribute to violence in Spain.

Not forgetting, of course, Clyfford Stills. The Royal Academy had loaned an unprecedented amount of works from the Denver museum, which they seldom leave. Lesser-known than his contemporaries, Stills's works are grandiose and daunting. Jackson Pollock even went so far as to say that Stills made the rest of the Abstract Expressionists "look academic." His landscape-inspired works might provide an interesting contrast with the abstract tendencies of American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, currently on show at the Tate Modern.


Key 119, Clyfford Still, PH-950, 1950. Oil on canvas, 233.7 x 177.8 cm. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver © City and County of Denver / DACS 2016.

Key 119, Clyfford Still, PH-950, 1950. Oil on canvas, 233.7 x 177.8 cm. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver © City and County of Denver / DACS 2016.


However, the Royal Academy separates the ‘big names’ of the movement into rooms dedicated to the individual, perhaps slightly clunkily. Because of this, the exhibition does not entirely answer - for the unknowing viewer - the fundamental question of what Abstract Expressionism actually is. Taken individually, examining each artist does however help one obtain a greater understanding of how the aims of the individual artists united them within a wider context. For example, the first room is dedicated to Arshile Gorky, in which one can clearly see the influence of past art on Abstract Expressionism and how it in turn would come to influence later art. Water of the Flowery Mill, for example, echoes Kandinsky and Miro in its composition whilst the use of colour foreshadows Rothko.

In the Jackson Pollock room, Mural is a focal point of the show. Commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim, it was arguably the work that first generated critical and public interest in the Abstract Expressionists when she put it on public display in New York. Blue Poles, hanging opposite, truly conveys the energetic theatricality of the artist’s ‘action painting’ technique. The frenzied and yet controlled colour explosions of these works are typical of Abstract Expressionism, engaging with the viewer on a highly performative level.


Key 305,   Arshile Gorky,    Water of the Flowery Mill   , 1944, Oil on canvas, 107.3 x 123.8 cm.   The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Key 305, Arshile Gorky, Water of the Flowery Mill, 1944, Oil on canvas, 107.3 x 123.8 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The vivacity of Joan Mitchell’s Mandres, seen in the next room, shows that women can compete with the historically patriarchal perception of the movement. Women do not feature much in this exhibition; strange considering that the influence and philanthropy of the art connoisseur Peggy Guggenheim and New York gallerist Betty Parsons were so crucial to the development of the movement. In terms of artists, Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner’s work is just as emotionally intense as any of Pollock’s own canvases. Sadly, as in life, this exhibition slightly overshadows the creative accomplishments of the female Abstract Expressionists.

In any case, the power of expression in this selection of works is sensational - a manifestation of the tragic nature of the individual artists that transcends each individual canvas. Although the exhibition might not be as coherent as intended, it is certainly worth visiting to experience the work of some of 20th-century art’s greatest visionaries. Undoubtedly the works benefit from repeated viewing, so give yourself a good amount of time to walk around, and go back a few days later if you can. Considering that this is the first exhibition of its kind in 57 years, it seems quite unmissable.

Key 34,   Jackson Pollock,    Blue Poles   , 1952, Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 212.1 x 488.9 cm

Key 34, Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952, Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 212.1 x 488.9 cm


‘Abstract Expressionism’ is at The Royal Academy of Arts until 2nd January 2017. It will then be shown at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from 3rd February - 4th June 2017.

Written by Georgia Messervy, a contributor to Arteviste.com