The ‘Abstract Expressionism’ exhibition which has just closed at the RA was nicely timed to coincide with the research point on Jackson Pollock. I was curious to see his work in the flesh, having previously seen only reproductions, and to see it in the context of those working around him in America at the time. The current exhibition echoes ‘The New American Painting’ exhibition of 1959 at the Tate after which Prunella Clough said ‘everything changed’ (Spalding, 2012).
The first room was dedicated to Arshile Gorky whose work reminded me of De Kooning with its curvaceous shapes in which you might recognise a form but then it melts away again. I found his watercolour and graphite sketches full of movement with easy lines and transparent washes. The oil paintings seemed, in comparison, heavy and laboured.
Then came the Pollocks. So many, in several rooms. The impact of the real paintings over a reproduction can’t be overstated. Size really does matter and a Pollock 6 metres long is an immersive experience. In reproductions, the texture of the paint and the way different paints have mixed on the canvas isn’t apparent. The paintings have absorbing details and massive overall impact. However, so many, placed together, detracted from each other and created an atmosphere of frenetic anxiety. In contrast , the room hung with half a dozen or so Rothko’s was calm and subdued, reinforced by the lower lighting levels. Unfortunately, the angle of the lighting created reflections on the surface of the paintings, rather spoiling the effect of an opening up of space through the picture plain. Even in such a busy environment, I found the Rothko’s gave me a profound feeling of spiritual peace.
I was unprepared for the effect that Barnett Newman’s painting would have. In reproduction I had found these rather uninteresting but in their physical presence I found a subtlety and depth that is lost in photographs. The successive washes of paint that he used create a rich and luminous surface and the straight lines and edges between colours are less exact and more complex than a photograph can show. Standing in front of one of the large paintings was rather like standing in the light from a stained glass window; I felt I could bathe in the dense colours.
After Rothko and Newman, I found the De Koonings rather light-weight and lacking profundity. The pretty colours and plastic bodies suffered for being in the presence of such intensity. Not so the Kline’s huge calligraphic marks. These sizzled with energy. It is as though Rothko and Newman were thoughtful and deeply considered during the execution of their works but Pollock and Kline did all their deep consideration before starting work and then just let it all flow out in impulsive gestures, actions. Indeed, Kline had a discipline of drawing and his apparently completely abstract marks are based on selected, enlarged and distorted details of representational drawings (The painting techniques of Franz Kline, 2013).
The exhibition included a number of less well known abstract expressionists such as Clifford Still and Joan Mitchell, but the other stand-out artist, for me, was the photographer Aaron Siskind whose work I only recently discovered and greatly admire. This exhibition included some photographic prints of details of graffiti which echo the paintings of Kline.
Spalding, F. (2012) Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped. United Kingdom: Lund Humphries Publishers.