When European artists first caught a glimpse of the abstract expressionist artists in a touring exhibition in 1959, they could not believe what they were seeing, they were stunned by the vigour, energy and size of the American’s work. The arrival of the touring exhibition “The New American Painting” in Paris, Berlin, and London spelled the end for Paris as the hub of contemporary art and the emergence of New York at its epicenter. For the first time Europe—still emerging from the shadows of the second World War—had seen a new artistic language emerge from the gestural mark-making of these American artists. They channelled their unconscious directly onto a canvas or, as the most high-profile of Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock once stated, “The modern artist … is working and expressing an inner world—in other words expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces.”

Now the Royal Academy in London is putting on the first major exhibition of Abstract Expressionism since that 1959 show, bringing together the most acclaimed American artists involved in the movement, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Francis, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston. The thirty-three Jackson Pollock works on their own are enough to justify the visit, all housed in one room they tower with prestige and momentousness. The works have been gathered from far-flung private and public collections from around the world, comprising over 150 paintings, sculpture, and photographs.

On the left Philip Guston, Scene, 1980, Lithograph, and on the right Philip Guston, Studio Forms, 1980, Lithograph

What makes this latest exhibition so intriguing is that it urges us to re-evaluate Abstract Expressionism and to recognize that these artists should not be lumped together under one unifying umbrella, but should be seen as a highly complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. The exhibition also undermines the notion that the movement should be almost exclusively linked to New York City. In fact through artists like Sam Francis and Mark Tobey, the West Coast played its part as well. Sam Francis, having featured in both exhibitions, is unique in being the only painter whose reputation was made without benefit of New York, having moved directly to Paris from San Francisco.

The exhibition also seeks to obliterate the ease with which the Abstract Expressionists have been categorised into two main groups, the color-field painters such as Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthalter and the so-called “action-painters” of Pollock and de Kooning fame. Although the so-called color-field painters focused on the sublime and contemplative qualities of color (think of Rothko’s rectangular floating forms) they had a lot more in common with the spontaneous gestures of the action-painters than had previously been realised. Most noticeably in their collective embrace of the radical all-over composition of the canvas as opposed to the more traditional central focus.

On the left Sam Francis, Speck, 1971, Lithograph and on the right Sam Francis, Seal Sail, 1969, Lithograph, 1964 Lithograph

The exhibition takes a broad view of the post war artists working at this time and also features work by artists made long after the 1950s such as Philip Guston’s work Low Tide, which dates from 1976. His course is truly intriguing, having been repelled by the notion of the artist as some kind of heroic figure, he chose to undermine and reject abstraction to focus on an ironic, figurative practice. His work became littered with cigarette butts and tin cans, all rendered in style that played a considerable role in the development of Neo-expressionism: “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art.” He once said, “That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself ... But painting is impure.”

The abstract expressionist artists owed a huge debt to the European surrealists such as Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso with their emphasis on spontaneous or subconscious creation. An interesting story surrounds Pollock and his admiration for Picasso, recounted by his wife, abstract expressionist artist Lee Krasner: “He admired Picasso and at the same time competed with him, wanted to go past him… I remember one time I heard something fall and then Jackson yelling, “God damn it, that guy missed nothing!” I went to see what had happened. Jackson was sitting, staring; and on the floor, where he had thrown it, was a book of Picasso’s work.” 

On the left Helen Frankenthaler, Bilbao, 1998, Silkscreen and on the right Helen Frankenthaler, Un poco más, 1987, Lithograph

Adrian Searle, art critic for the Guardian Newspaper has expressed regret at the lack of female artists represented in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, especially the above mentioned Lee Krasner—one of only four female artists to have a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (the others being Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Bourgeois and Elizabeth Murray). Helen Frankenthaler could also be said to be under represented, and, although her constantly changing art practice could only be said to be for associated with the movement for a short time, her contribution was significant.

Few artist’s movements have had such an impact as the abstract expressionist artists in the 50s and 60s, it being the first truly American movement to break out internationally. Its legacy is enormous, having redefined the nature of painting by being emphatically American, encapsulating a rugged individual freedom and embracing a monumental scale. One of the visitors to the exhibition in 1959 was Georg Baselitz, whose expressive large scale work would never have been possible without the influence of this new American Art. Its traces and impulses continue to extend well into the 21st Century, and many of its totemic artist figures remain some of the most revered and mythologized in contemporary art.

On the left Mark Rothko, No. 15, 1957, Oil on canvas, and on the right Clyfford Still, PH-950, 1950, Oil on canvas

“Abstract Expressionism” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, runs from the 24th of September through to the 2nd of January.

By Duncan Ballantyne-Way — Senior Editor