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.

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