The sheer volume of works included in the Royal Academy’s winter exhibition, Abstract Expressionism, is worth the entrance fee alone. However, the fact that this is the first survey in 50 years makes it a must-see.
Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943
Ab Ex marks a period of art in 1940’s and ‘50’s New York which proved to be a watershed moment in the evolution of 20th century art. Alumni of the New York School meeting in the scrubby, down-at-heel Cedar Tavern in the West Village resulted in an unbridled creativity exemplified by works bigger, bolder and brasher than anything seen before (or since, some might remark) amongst artists who broke free of post-war convention and restriction. Whilst early works reflected the darkness of these times, others developed to embody contemplation and optimism. The sheer scale of some of these works would draw the viewer in, provoking reaction.
Mark Rothko, No. 4 (Yellow, Black, Orange on Yellow), 1953
The key players (Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko) are here in abundance; artworks that have been in your psyche without you even realising it (prints having adorned the walls of many a living room, acting as the ‘poster-child’ of modern art as we know it). They say you should never meet you heroes but seeing a Rothko in the flesh is awe-inspiring. And there is much more to indulge in. Disappearing into the blackness of a Reinhardt, sussing out his subtle nuances in tone, might be the best therapy we’ve ever had. Be sure to make beeline for the room devoted to Clyfford Still – his namesake museum in Colorado rarely lends his work – and when someone like Pollock famously commented of Still that he “makes the rest of us look academic”, you know it’ll be worth it.
Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955
Critics have been quick to judge (dominated by male artists, awkward curation, too many works competing for your attention…), but seeing so many of the masterpieces that defined an artistic movement of this magnitude, all under one roof, might make it a once in a lifetime experience. And, quite frankly, we defy you not to be overwhelmed, in a really, really good way.
Abstract Expressionism until 2 January 2017
Main image: Clyfford Still, PH-950, 1950
All images: royalacademy.org.uk