With its enormous vibrant canvases, the Royal Academys latest show the first survey of abstract expressionism in Europe in more than 50 years molts fresh light on the movements origins

When abstract expressionism first swept the Atlantic in 1959, in The New American Painting , an exhibition that set out in metropolis including Berlin, Paris and London( where it hung at the Tate Gallery ), it blew the socks off European artists. Painters of the Ecole de Paris, the centre of the avant garde, were still using easels, skirting around the edges of the precondition humaine with a modest chassis of existentialism, or otherwise precisely simulating Picasso. The new American painting, by contrast, represented immense canvases by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still and others, with a controlling intensity and directness, and an psychological impact that, in Rothkos case, reduced some onlookers to rends( they are having the same religious knowledge I had when I covered them, Rothko explained ). Travelling alongside the group reveal was a retrospective of( more) covers by Pollock, the greatest of them all, who had died in a auto crash three years earlier. The transaction was sealed Paris was over. As the exhibition toured its European artistry capitals, painters must have snuck dwelling from the exhibition in surprise and despair, electrified by what they had met and wondering how on world it was possible to rivalled.

The Abstract Expressionism exhibition opening at the Royal Academy this month will be the first survey in Europe of the movement since 1959. Not so remarkable, perhaps: such large and expensive( at least to protect) paintings are very difficult to gather together. There is also the amorphous quality of the movement, with no real stylistic relationship between the main chassis the link more a matter of physical width and magnitude of desire. And then there was the new skill of the 60 s pop skill, befalls and the rest which seemed to oblige the act of painting itself if not obsolete, then at least old-fashioned. And in a sense it was. For all the astound it generated over the Atlantic, abstract expressionism was not the start of something, but preferably a beautiful culminating, the epic climax of a long tradition of Nostalgic nature paint, gone up in the fireworks of Newmans zips, Pollocks dribbles and the smoky miasma of Rothkos colour fields.

For David Anfam, who has curated the picture alongside the RAs in-house curator Edith Devaney, ab ex( as he periods it ), was not so much better a push( there were no manifestos , no subscription costs) as a phenomenon. Its one that cannot now be confined to a few lone macho heroes with brushes. For a beginning, it was not just about decorating. The sculptor David Smith construed himself in constant dialogue with painters. His sinewy constellation Star Cage of 1950 transforms Pollocks skeins and arc of cover into a planetary chart. Later organizes made of daring steel ingredients painted black are like their responses to Franz Klines decorates, structures of heavy black marks, like girders silhouetted in a heat cloud. His final stainless steel statues, such as Cubi XXVII ( 1965 ), standing in the RA courtyard, have shimmering roughly refined faces that might be a thoughtfulnes of a neighbouring Pollock. Louise Nevelsons carves transform the dark, serious surfaces of Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb into monochrome assemblages of discarded objectives, stacked as if to create a shrine.

Nevelson is one of a number of women who played an important, if generally unacknowledged capacity in abstract expressionism. Georgia OKeeffe, though not part of the RA show( but much in evidence at Tate Modern ), pioneered a organize of idea built on highly symbolic imaginations of the body and landscape. She is a clear presage of the symbolic sceneries of Still. Much less well known, the depicts of the Ukrainian-born artist Janet Sobel were in part the brainchild for Pollocks leap into total idea, after her labour was shown at Peggy Guggenheims Art of This Century Gallery in 1944. The dense abstract interlace of her depict Illusion of Solidity , covered the next year,( on reveal at the RA) looks like Celtic knot-work adornment croaked wild. Sobel was just acknowledged by Clement Greenberg, the critic who promoted the abstract expressionist masters, and she died in oblivion in 1968. The wallop of Pollocks make was felt most keenly in that of his wife, Lee Krasner, who a few years after his death grew a series of depicts that wrestle with his remembrance and legacy, includes the impressive monochrome piece The Eye Is the First Circle , 1960. In the following years Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell made the stronger responses to classic abstract expressionism. Mitchells Salut Tom , covered in 1979, is the most recent depict in the exhibition, and testifies just how much the abstract expressionist atmosphere had both stood and transformed. As Anfam sees, Krasner and Mitchell get better with age partly for the simple reason that they met with less resist from their male peers and reviewers , notably Greenberg.

The RA show will likewise demonstrate a fresh sentiment of the beginnings of the members of the movement. A handful of paints from the 1930 s by Krasner, Pollock, Rothko and others, indicate how they came from a extremely American type of dark modernism born in the depression epoch. Krasners 1931 self-portrait presents a morose, tough likenes, with more than a suggestion of Giorgione about it, already proving what an completed painter she was, and represents her eclipse by her husband all the more regrettable.

Clyfford Still, PH-9 50( 1950 ). Photograph: Clyfford Still/ Courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO

Pollocks principal role continues, nonetheless, unassailable. His 1943 cover Mural , commissioned for Peggy Guggenheims townhouse on East 61 st Street in Manhattan, is generally accepted as the first great step towards the new painterly image. It is the largest illustration he ever did, and was based, so the narrative starts, on a imagination of a stampede, firstly of a flock of Mustang, but soon acceded to by kine, horses, antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddam surface, Pollock is registered saying. It is like a sudden handout of energy a few moments of fission, perhaps that affected everything being made around it. You can see its force in de Koonings frenetically murderous Woman depicts, and in the broad calligraphic markings that underlie Arshile Gorkys paints. It encapsulates a flavor of the west communicated to the studios of New York painters.

As such it presages the largest dissension between Pollock and Still. Both outlined on their early experiences of the American west, Pollock growing up in Cody, Wyoming, Still working in his early years on the family film in Alberta, Canada. Where Pollock necessary no introduction, Stills name might not reverberating numerous bells. He was a great painter who made an important body of work over six decades, until his death in 1980, but his often vitriolic personality and self-imposed interloper status he primarily refused to sign with a gallery meant that he has always been to be considered as a secondary person. Virtually all of his depicts are kept in the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado, and the loan of such a major group as will appear at the RA is rare. It is undeserved disuse. His paintings are strangely powerful, strange amalgams of landscape and unique craggy figures that might be outbursts of lightning or snowflakes of old decorate, blistered by the prairie heat. His epic canvases like grand valleys go beyond even Pollocks forest woodlands in their evocation of an awesome grandness of nature. Still obliges the rest of us appear academic, Pollock once said, with only a small dosage of hyperbole.

Grand valleys, forest thickets: for all the claims of abstract and speech, Pollock and Still show us that what we are really are working with is a form of sort depict. Perhaps that is why when looking at Pollocks flicks of color I cant aid thinking of the white-hot chips that enliven the surfaces of Constables sceneries. But this is an exception: the associations are otherwise alone American.

Pollocks impression of immense herds pealing over the western grasslands electrifies Mural , separating it from a European habit of landscape painting. Stills monumental paintings remind one of everlasting rock faces or of Niagara-sized cataracts. Natural similarities are most obvious in the work of the Armenian-born Gorky, whose early designations prove immediately the inspiration of sort Water of the Flowery Mill , from 1945. To recognize Rothkos paintings as landscapes and sunsets, or brightening nocturnal seascapes is reductive, but inescapable for that is what they most remind us of.

Where Mural hands an impression of superabundant botany, and of hope, a decade afterward the humor have started to darken. Franz Kleins Requiem of 1958, a great dark churning mass, captivates this changing humor, just as Rothkos shading palette seems to reflect the dissolution of an initial instant of optimism. A new, darker, consider of nature itself was emerging at this time. Between Milton Resnicks only grey painting Octave of 1961, and Ad Reinhardts wholly pitch-black cover Abstract Painting No 23 of 1963, Rachel Carsons Silent Spring was publicized, the book that propelled a new environmental shift, discovering the horrific threat to nature can be attributed to human civilisation. Nevelsons frieze-like loads of discarded objects, painted pitch-black, are somber thinkings of the growing appreciation of the perils of consumerism.

Self-Portrait by Lee Krasner( 1931 ). Photograph: Private Collection

The alternative was escape. De Kooning moved to a more lyrical pattern of depict,( such as Villa Borghese , 1961 ), that paucity the urgent, agitated connection to the world of his earlier Women depicts( no bad concept, is dependent on your view of these brutal portraits, often was regarded as misogynist ). The most fascinating answer is the question of Philip Guston, who seemed to come out of the other side of abstraction into an alternative nature of figuration, ironic, often droll, but at heart deadly serious about human outage, and how hollow the pose of aesthetic valor had now become. His Low Tide , from 1976, hanging in the RA, proves heel-like chassis resting on a ruby-red sand, like body parts of abstract expressionist painters, disclosed as deep water grow shallow.

The fact that there has been no exhibition of abstract expressionism in Europe since the groundbreaking touring prove of 1959 might suggest that it was, as a movement, an historic lack. Was the sheer aspiration of it, the life-and-death valour and claims of transcendence all exactly a bit too much? Do the decorates still have the power to move as they did in 1959? Their bequest is irrefutable: it was not possible to suspect the scale and passion of contemporary artwork from the spirited face of Georg Baselitz( who examined the 1959 see) to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst without the epic precedent of abstract expressionist cover. And although the next generation of American creators , notably Robert Rauschenberg, acted against the nature painters with duty that met the spectacle of the mediated nature itself as a anatomy of second nature, they knew that the stage on which they accepted had been created by the abstract expressionist painters. At a age when decorate is vying for tending with other skill formations it is virtually absent from the recently-opened new offstage of Tate Modern, for example the RA exhibition will show how much these celebrated beasts can still hold their own.

Abstract Expressionism is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, from 24 September. royalacademy.org.uk .


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