For a baby boomer like me, as we grew into adulthood there was always something of the shining city on the hill about the United States. Despite our own swinging sixties, that country represented a beacon of progress, innovation and cultural modernity. That was where you looked for new ideas and for ‘where it was at’, whether you were interested in business, technology or culture. Of course, we knew that there was a dark side to the United States whether it be the McCarthy witch hunts, the pervasive racism in parts of the country or the cavalier requirement for the world to accept American exceptionalism. But the history of the post-war period seemed to be the history of defeating the dark side and making America synonymous with modernity.
The enormous exhibition of US Abstract Expressionism, primarily from the 1940s to 60s, currently showing at the Royal Academy is a stark reminder both of a time when the United States was the leader in cultural modernity and progressiveness, and of the extent to which that leadership has been abandoned. Who today sees the United States as the principal motor of cultural innovation, and the shining city on the hill? I left the exhibition feeling both energised by what I had seen and depressed by the realisation that the energy and innovation on display in the exhibition has largely drained away.
The exhibition which the RA has mounted is the largest and most comprehensive show in the UK of American (primarily but not exclusively New York), abstract expressionism for at least 50 years. Although there are many artists on show, four figures dominate. These are Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, William de Kooning and Clyfford Still. The exhibition charts how these painters and others came to abandon the last vestiges of figurative art and move to pure abstraction. The core principle of that abstraction was that a painting was no longer required to depict anything other than itself. It is simply a two dimensional plane marked with colour by gesture to create a visual effect. Sometimes the effect is peaceful and relaxing, sometimes complex and almost hallucinatory and sometimes dark, violent and disturbing. But the reaction is always visceral, felt rather than understood. It is art which connects, if it does connect, directly with your emotions rather than through the intellect. There are no narratives, no symbols, no context given or required and you either make a connection or you don’t. And that connection takes time. When you look at a figurative painting you are looking at representations of the familiar, and your brain can short cut to read and ‘understand’ the picture, at least at one level. When you look at a large Jackson Pollock, the brain has no short cuts. Unless you choose to reject it on sight, there is no alternative to looking slowly and carefully to absorb what is in front of you. There are no familiar visual short cuts. As a consequence I never seen a gallery audience standing for so long in front of pictures seeking to absorb what they were seeking. And because the pictures are so comprehensively ‘what you see is what you get’, there are few exhibitions of this scale in which the normal curatorial descriptive text is so redundant. And to their credit, the curators have kept the text to a minimum.
Although there are a wide range of artists represented, Jackson Pollock dominates this show. There is one large room filled with his paintings, including the mural which was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her Manhattan townhouse and was the largest of his paintings. The popular impression of Pollock’s work and in particular his poured ‘action paintings’ is that they are random dribbling of paint on canvas. Look at them properly however and you realise just how controlled and organised they are, creating a visual rhythm across the canvas and which supports an infinity of careful looking.
Rothko, by contrast, is using simple blocks of colour to create a mood. He called is pictures ‘facades’ a name which nicely signifies that each painting both has a public front and a hidden interior; an emotional state which can be absorbed by looking. The central room of Rothko works becomes as a result a place of meditation and powerful though the pictures are they do no for me match the intensity of Pollock.
De Kooning feels like an imposter in this exhibition though he is normally regarded as an Abstract Impressionist. De Kooning had a European pedigree and never fully abandoned figurative art. Indeed many of the pictures on display are of women and de Kooning seems caught between the European and American movements in C20, at the risk of satisfying neither.
The final dominant figure in the show is Clyfford Still who one feels is the most fundamentalist of the abstract expressionists. He painted only for himself, with no interest in an audience. And indeed some 90% of his work was never seen in his lifetime, and has only come to be seen and studied since it was made public in a single massive donation to an American gallery shortly after his death. Still was unrepentant about his approach, and asked whether he was concerned whether his art reached people he responded “Not in the least. That is what the comic strip does”. When asked whether that meant that he painted primarily for himself, the answer was a simple “Yes”.
Perhaps in that response lies a key explanation of why the flowering of abstract expressionism was so short-lived. Rejecting the requirements of the audience abstraction was highly susceptible to being overtaken in the popular consciousness by Pop Art, Warhol and everything which followed. Of course, there are still fine painters exploring abstract expressionism today, but they no longer represent modernity; rather they are engaged in further exploring a cul-de-sac. Abstract Expressionism was the future once. Now it is the past; interesting, sometimes inspiring, but no longer with the power to point to the future. As America, so American Abstract Expressionism.