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What is abstract expressionism?

Posted on by Beyond Bespoke

Anthony Wenyon visits London’s Royal Academy of Arts to experience the monumental Abstract Expressionism exhibition (open now – 2nd January 2017)

Abstract Expressionism is one of the most important art movements of the 20th Century. It is most closely associated with artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, with some of the most valuable paintings ever sold falling within its sphere. Indeed, De Kooning’s 1955 Interchange was sold for $300m in 2015, the highest price paid for a painting to date.

A once in a lifetime opportunity. It must not be missed – even for those with only a passing interest in art – the works are so powerful they will effect you

In broad terms, the name Abstract Expressionism is descriptive – works are generally abstract in nature and follow themes developed in the earlier Expressionism movement. The work is typically ‘Abstract’ in that they are not figurative (they do not seek to be objective representations of the world or its ‘visible reality’). Instead of depicting the material world as we see it, abstract art attempts to capture it spiritually or emotionally through the effects colour, lines, shapes and compositions have on the way we feel.

Expressionism, as an art movement, that developed in the early 20th century from the works of earlier painters such as Edvard Munch (most notably The Scream, 1893) and Vincent van Gough. Whilst the works of such artists remained figurative to a point, they sought to distort the world for an emotional effect to invoke moods or ideas – Munch’s The Scream shows an agonised expression against a tumultuous orange sky. Van Gough used colour as well as expressive – and very visible – brushstrokes to convey his troubled moods.

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Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, National Gallery, Norway

Whilst Abstract Expressionism was not a movement in itself in that artists categorised this way did not generally work closely with each other or jointly publish manifestos on their ideas as is typical of other movements, their approach to painting derived from similar origins.

In particular, in the period after World War I the Dada Art Movement developed as a response to the irrationality of war and the (seemingly rational) structures of post-industrial bourgeois society that made it inevitable. The movement was opposed to all aspects of bourgeois culture, in particular, its abstract art that was meticulously planned and completed. Dada mocked this approach by introducing chance into the creation of art and sought to channel the subconscious mind to create random and irrational conceptions of art. This was anti-art. Andre Masson allowed his hand to move randomly across the paper, applying chance and accident to his work.

André Masson, Automatic Drawing, 1924, Museum of Modern Art, New York
André Masson, Automatic Drawing, 1924, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Out of the ideas of Dada emerged Surrealism in the 1920’s. Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes and strange creatures often allowing chance to simulate the subconscious to express itself. For example, in the late 1920’s Max Ernst would drop pieces of paper randomly on floor boards and rubbed them with a pencil to transfer an image to the paper. He would then ‘interpret’ the image, say as a forest, overpainting trees and creatures.

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Max Ernst, The Forest, 1927-28, Peggy Guggenheim, Venice

Surrealism’s emphasis on spontaneous, automatic or subconscious creation was embraced by Abstract Expressionist artists after World War II.

Jackson Pollock – perhaps its major figure – spontaneously dripped, splashed or smeared paint onto a canvas, rather than carefully applying it. The resulting forms were entirely abstract, but through control over the movement of his body, and his own sense of when to stop (only when he saw what he wanted to see) they reflected a personal expression via a mixture of uncontrollable and controllable factors – conscious, unconscious and the random flow of the paint. This way Pollock sought to channel the emotions he experienced when painting to the canvas – “I’m only interested in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on – and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted by my paintings shows that I communicate [the experience] I had when I painted them

Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. On show at The Royal Academy Abstract Expressionism exhibition in London
Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. On show at The Royal Academy Abstract Expressionism exhibition in London

Whilst other artists associated with Abstract Expressionism developed different expressive approaches, they were no less groundbreaking – the radical creations of the Abstract Expressionist artists re-defined the nature of painting. The Royal Academy (RA) describes their work as a “watershed moment in the evolution of 20th century art”. Remarkably until the RA’s exhibition, there has been no major survey of this unparalleled period in modern art since 1959 when an international exhibition concluded in London’s Tate Gallery.

With their monumental exhibition – the first in over 50 years – bringing together some of the most celebrated art of the last century, the Royal Academy reveals the full breadth of the movement and offers a unique chance to see these important works together in the heart of London.

The exhibition – spanning 12 rooms – explores the different approaches Abstract Expressionist artists had developed through their boundless creative energy.

Beginning with early figurative works that chart the development of the movements leading artists as they sought to define their own individual styles, including Jackson Pollock’s, 1943 Mural, in which figurative elements can still be seen as he captures a “vision of a ‘stampede of every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes, everything charging”. Painted in a burst of inspired and intense energy on a single day (after spending weeks in front of a blank canvas), Pollock had produced an overall effect of abstraction. This work arguably redefined the possibilities of painting. The significance of this work can not be overestimated. It must be seen.

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Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943, The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa. On show at The Royal Academy Abstract Expressionism exhibition in London

The mixture of figurative and abstract is also seen in Willem de Kooning’s, Woman paintings, several of which are on display at the Royal Academy, expressing – via some extremely aggressive brush strokes – a deep sense of desire, frustration, inner conflict and pleasure.

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Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1949-50, Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina. On show at The Royal Academy Abstract Expressionism exhibition in London

Mark Rothko’s Abstract Expressionist style was less gestural (less powerful brush strokes or forceful paint application) than artists such as Pollock and de Kooning, instead favouring abstract all over colour or Colour Fields to express basic human emotions. Several of Rothko’s large and contemplative paintings are on display at the Royal Academy, a remarkable coup for its organisers. The viewer experience is truly extraordinary – when standing close to these large scale works (really less than 6ft away is ideal) you can not help but be drawn into a moving emotional experience, you feel a connection with Rothko himself and his own feelings. Despite their abstraction, they are some of the most accessible art ever produced – there is no need to be a connoisseur or an expert, they just take over you. Try it. You will be affected.

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Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960, Toledo Museum of Art, Iowa. On show at The Royal Academy Abstract Expressionism exhibition in London

The works of many no less acclaimed Abstract Expressionist artists also feature in the Royal Academy’s blockbuster exhibition, including large-scale immersive works Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, David Smith, Philip Guston and Arshile Gorky, among many others. Visiting the Royal Academy’s exhibition is a once in a lifetime opportunity. With the art of the movement becoming so extraordinarily valuable, it is possible that this would not be repeated. The Mona Lisa may never move from the Louvre – the most important Abstract Expressionism works may be equally significant.

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