Abstract Expressionism – Royal Academy

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Well…its a James C. Brooks work from 1954 (and isn’t it terrific) but it isn’t there!  More of that later.  And what am I doing straying so far from the A52?  Well…

One friend of mine called it a ‘once in a generation’ show…and to have assembled all these greats in one location is just that. Above all the largest central gallery that we might call the ‘Still’ room is pretty special…after all the vast majority of his canvases are usually holed up in Denver. And the use of ‘vast’ is rightly pertinent. The three in a row along one wall are towering achievements in the entire history of painting. So its  a show that warrants attention even though Piccadilly is a long haul from here.

Plenty has been said about the ‘movement’ over the years and in truth a lot of it nonsense. And though there’s some revisionism going on here its a decent round up of the main suspects. I was minded to take issue with David Anfam’s introductory text but on reflection I’m warming to it. Though its didactic consequences for the selection especially in the earlier days are quixotic to say the least.

And selection issues are writ large here. For example there is the rightful inclusion of Joan Mitchell – but no Grace Hartigan…her River Bathers easily the equal of De Kooning, a testimony to her year spent revisiting the Old Masters that pissed off her pals (and crucially Clem Greenberg) but shows (to my mind at least) a genuinely thoughtful and independent streak to her artistic research).  Of The Iracibles we see nothing from Stamos, maybe no surprise there after the Rothko debacle but I was impressed back in the early 90’s when I saw a large retrospective in Athens especially by some of his later work that echoes colourfield painting. In that context perhaps Friedel Dzubas’ Ab Ex work might have pointed up the connections between these two movements as might have James Brooks who might well vie with Helen Frankenthaler for pole position in the development of staining as a technique? No Hedda Sterne either though I’m quite taken with the two mid fifties works owned by the Whitney & MOMA.

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Hedda Sterne  New York, N.Y., Airbrush & enamel on canvas, 36 1/4×60 1/4 ins. 1955

There is a modest Tomlin…but hardly a major work…what a pity…surely No. 20 from 1949 or the following year’s magnificent Number 9:In Praise of Gertrude Stein would have been available (neither has been on display when I’ve visited MOMA!) and would have been a fitting inclusion. The second generation in particular have been rather overlooked… so no place for Alfred Leslie or Michael Goldberg and to my mind nobody exemplifies second generation ab ex better!

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Michael Goldberg  Untitled, 1957

But overall this is an opportunity to see more great paintings of the period in one place than is ever likely again in the UK. There are many important pictures to evaluate and re-evaluate and some interesting and valuable juxtapositions to mull over. That said some of the hang is a tad unfortunate… the trio of Guston, Mitchell and Frankenthaler in Room 4 (titled Gesture as Colour) are cramped and, pitted against the magnificently luminous Sam Francis’ canvases on the adjacent wall, look a bit poky which they most definitely are not! Barnett Newman isn’t exactly well served either and there are more odd omissions, I love  Francis but it seems perverse to give him (and Mark Tobey) such a solid outing but completely omit Cy Twombly.   David Smith is dotted through the rooms fairly liberally and of course he sits at the centre of the contribution from sculpture to the party but surely there was room to feature some others (I know Louise Nevelson is here…though quite how her work sits stylistically is more questionable) Herbert Ferber, Ibram Lassaw, Theodore Roszak and of course Louise Bourgeois all spring readily to mind.

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Ibram Lassaw  Moons of Saturn, Bronze 1954

The inclusion of photography is interesting and speaks to our current mindset of inter and cross disciplinary work. Aaron Siskind has long been seen as operating in similar territory to the others but I knew little of Barbara Morgan’s abstract work nor had seen Harry Callaghan’s extraordinary early prints – Detroit 1945 is exquisite or the Minor White pictures. Herbert Matter was completely unknown to me. The famous Pollock images by Namuth merited inclusion but why none of Fred McDarrah’s photos…his image of Norman Bluhm (another omission) sums up the period just as much as the Namuth.

But again I’m falling into carping. This is, overall, a magnificent show that immerses one in an extraordinary and exciting period of painting history – and is a must see event if one cares about abstraction.

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