Fine Art: It’s no longer shocking, but it’s still great art

Mark Rothko’s Gethsemane, 1944

Abstract Expressionism
Royal Academy of Art, until January 2, 2017

Last time there was an exhibition in this country dedicated to Abstract Expressionism the movement was in full swing. It was 1959, and Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still were covering their monumental canvases with colour or, as often, with darkness. The gallery-going public were still adjusting their eyes to the shock.

One’s impression upon visiting the Royal Academy’s new show is that Abstract Expressionism has since fallen on the wrong side of the shock factor. The explosions and drips of Jackson Pollock et al cannot be seen in the way they were in the post-war period. The context has changed and, in an age of conceptual art, so have our expectations.

Had the success of the American movement rested only on its ability to unsettle, we might have forgiven its absence from the exhibition rotas. The art, however, remains as visceral as it ever was.

Abstract Expressionism emerged at the end of World War II and survived into the 1970s. As de Kooning said, Jackson Pollock “broke the ice” when he laid his canvases on the floor and poured pigments upon them to form rich labyrinths of colour. Pollock’s stunningly dynamic, pulse-quickening Blue Poles is here exhibited for the first time opposite his Mural of 1943, originally painted for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York townhouse.

Painter Robert Motherwell, meanwhile, reflecting on the Spanish Civil War, preferred to daub his canvases heavily, and sometimes almost entirely, in black. If Pollock’s seem to speak more of liberation and Motherwell’s of depression, we might view them equally as outpourings of pent-up emotion.

The emotions driving the movement were both political and personal. It is significant that Arshile Gorky’s art became more solemn after his studio burned down. The Armenian-born painter was influential in fusing elements of Surrealism and Cubism to create a new language. The sculptural quality of his painting is brought out in this show by the display nearby of work by sculptor David Smith. Renowned for “drawing in space”, Smith achieved in metal the same dynamism, often on a horizontal plane, as the painters. His Hudson River Landscape (1951), made from disused agricultural tools, signifies even more poignantly than many of the paintings the social changes of the 20th century.

This exhibition is predominantly one of scale, of seismic canvases with all-over compositions of colour, violent mark or calligraphic motif. Making less of an immediate impact, there are also photographic works, including the beautiful microscope-like studies of Herbert Matter, and some rarely exhibited early works of the movement’s pioneers. Walk backwards from the central hall of Rothko’s celebrated rectangles to find his early meditation on Christ, Gethsemane, and a chilling self-portrait from 1936.