Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943. (Image Courtesy of The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016.)
Abstract Expressionism - Review at the Royal Academy
For the first time in over fifty years the Royal Academy has exhibited a show on Abstract Expressionism. The sheer amount of works on display, amounting to 163 in total, is compelling and an impressive display of art that are infrequently exhibited this side of the pond. However, the show is packaged in a widely uninspiring way, which lacks variation of race, and sex. Instead the show re-enforces an already exhausted account of a the heavily white male dominated narrative of Abstract Expression. Therefore, the exhibition is very much reflective of a gallery hoping to engage with the public, and ensure high ticket sales, through using ‘big’ names such as Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning. This is even evident in the marketing of the exhibition, which clearly states the names of the defining artists of exhibition one after an other on their advertising and posters. Though this may be viewed as a powerful marketing technique it reinforces a canon of artists that do not fully resemble the Abstract Expressionist movement. Rather the exhibition largely displays the works in the way that history and the critic Clement Greenberg would implore us to view the Abstract Expressionists, Pollock physically and critically at the centre of the exhibition and all other artists leading off from him.
The show was monumental in scale. Unfortunately this left the size and quantity of the paintings overbearing on the rooms. For example, at the heart of the exhibition Pollock’s work was left feeling cramped and lacked the space to truly appreciate and immerse yourself in the works. As a result a recurring theme in the exhibition was the sense of being overwhelmed. The viewer was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of works and the physical space that they inhabited. Only the works of Rothko and Still seemingly had space to breathe, as they had entirely separate rooms dedicated to their individual works. The viewer was able to engage with their paintings without being distracted by the numerous contrasting and cramped pieces. The ability for the paintings to inspire and for the viewer to be lost in the awe of the work are comprised by the closeness of many of the paintings. This resulted in the viewer often missing or dismissing the less ‘obvious’ works, such as Louise Nevelson, which was seemingly placed in a corner of the exhibition and could easily have been missed.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the exhibition brings together an astonishing number of works. It is a shame that the exhibition did not illustrate a clear story of Abstract Expressionism. This was largely due to the fact that the work included a hybrid of the ‘alternative’ Abstract Expressionist artists and the traditional. The issue being that that the exhibition’s depiction of these ‘other’ artists, such as Norman Lewis, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell was uncommitted. Their works displayed as side notes. This is particularly the case with Lee Krasner who is reduced to the role of Pollock’s wife in the exhibition and not given the full credit that she deserves. This is more of a reflection of the 1949 exhibition “Artists: Man and Wife”, where Krasner lived in the shadow of her husband, rather than exhibiting her as an Abstract Expressionist in her own right.
The exhibition is confusing. On the one hand is difficult to not be impressed at seeing the likes of Clifford Still’s in the flesh. Or to walk amongst some of the most celebrated artists of the past fifty years. However, it tells an overfamiliar tale and does not highlight enough the considerably wide breadth of the movement. In fact it is erratic, overloaded and at times incoherent in its display and choice of art. Perhaps the best way to have enjoyed this exhibition was just to revel in seeing Abstract Expressionist works of art and not to think.