Friday, 6 January 2017

'Abstract Expressionism' at The Royal Academy

The Royal Academy has a grand tradition of putting on great exhibitions such as the excellent 'Modern Gardens' exhibition early last year. So I walked into the courtyard of the Academy to see the 'Abstract Expressionism' exhibition with high expectations of being amazed and taught great things. Teach me about these painters who splashed on their wet paints and dribbled it onto canvas, teach me about this oddly immigrant American form of art.

Before this exhibition, the only abstract expressionist I had any kind of liking for was Mark Rothko and his mesmerising and meditative massive works. I well remember walking into the Tate in the 1980s and sitting in front of a giant painting being pulled into it's oddly autumn colours by it's dazzling simplicity. Wondering where was the skill and artistry and giving up and surrendering to it, being pulled into the painting and held hostage. That was one painting. Imagine being in a room surrounded by giant canvasses by Rothko and that's the Royal Academy exhibition.

Before you get to the Rothko room, of course, you see so many other imaginative and experimental artists. One artists I fell for was Jackson Pollock. Now, we've all heard of Mr Pollock, him of the dribbling paint, but have you been in a large room surrounded by his huge canvases? My jaw dropped. It was also strangely exciting. How can they be so big and so random, paint splatters here and there, and then you start looking and see which paints were applied first and which went on top of others to create spaces in the paintings. I really wanted to reach out and touch these paintings, feel the lumps and bumps of oil paint, touch them and trace the patterns. The textures must be marvellous.

The 'problem' with artists like Pollock is, I think, that there's little point in looking at reproductions in glossy books, you really need to see the real thing to get the full impact. That's the case with every painting, really, but more so with these enormous works. And that struck me as another problem - the sheer size of most of the paintings in the exhibition. It's something I've commented on before and it's sort an undemocratic format for art. A format designed for show on huge walls in art galleries or corporate buildings or the walls of the very rich. Not for my living room wall or (probably) yours. I don't understand enough about this 'movement' to know why they had a tendency to go big but it's something I always feel uncomfortable about in 'modern' painting.

Another painter much in evidence was Willem de Koonig with his brash, colourful paintings, sometimes feeling almost violent.  His thick layers of paint on the canvas, dragging his brush through he paint so you cans see the textures. I couldn't help but wonder how paintings like this were framed without the glass smearing the paint. Some were figurative such as his paintings of a 'Woman' but others were slabs of paint and untitled. Why do artists do that 'untitled' thing?  Is it just to confuse people - it can't be that they lack the imagination to title something since by this time that know paintings are collected in books and things.

I really enjoyed this exhibition but wouldn't classify it as one of the Royal Academy's 'greats'. It told me I need to learn more about this 'movement', to try to understand the intellectualism behind the forms of painting and what the artists were truing to achieve. The exhibition is now closed but I wanted it in the Plastic Bag since it's an important exhibition.

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