There are beautiful, marvellous and terrifying things in the Royal Academy’s much-trumpeted survey of Abstract Expressionism. What more could one ask in a show including the explosive and tender Jackson Pollock; De Kooning swerving and jumbling and dismembering his frightening figures of women; Rothko’s tangy brightness and trembling, tremulous darkness;Barnett Newman’s zips and planes and intervals; Guston’s dirty abstract impressionism in which figures wait to be unleashed. Franz Kline’s angled black and white incidents; Arshile Gorky’s quietly writhing accretions: they are all here. I wanted to be blown away, and to reconnect with a kind of painting that once had me in its thrall, and whose traces and impulses continue to be felt into the 21st century. I wanted to see it in some new and instructive way, but I didn’t.
From Gorky’s querulous biomorphs to one of Rothko’s very late grey and black images of emptiness and closure, I struggled. Overloaded, frequently puzzling and erratic, this is an exhibition whose pleasures – and there are many – come at a price. For all its key works, and also because of them, it often flattens out signal achievements, with deadening juxtapositions and clunky sightlines. While the biggest names get rooms to themselves, others fight it out in thematic displays that deaden individual works and achievements.
There isn’t enough work by the very few women artists – principally Lee Krasnerand Joan Mitchell – and Helen Frankenthaler was never really an abstract expressionist. “Abstract expressionism,” wrote poet and curator Frank O’Hara, “is the art of serious men.” Men is the key word. He also said, in 1954, that without its adventurous spirit, “we would have been given over to a cult of mechanics, of know-how … which cannot be confused with creation”. This now has largely happened.
The parsimonous representations of Jack Tworkov, Mark Tobey and William Baziotes don’t upset any of the hierarchies set up by critics and dealers in the 1950s. This may be right historically, but the exclusion of Hedda Sterne, the only woman to appear in the photograph of “the irascibles”, a group portrait shot for Time-Life in 1951, and whose works were a wonderful surprise in the opening show of the new Whitney Museum last year, feels perverse. “Unfortunately,” writes the show’s curator, American art historian David Anfam, “although Sterne was a fine artist, she was not of the foremost calibre. Prejudice and other deleterious factors must be opposed when shaping any canon, yet not (pace some contemporary theory) at the expense of connoisseurship and quality: tokens are not fully fledged currency, nor are quotas. As with gender, so with race.” This tells us a lot about the shaping of this exhibition, which makes no advances on our understanding of what abstract expressionism was.
There are nods to activities on the US west coast, and space given to Sam Francis, an overly precious artist whose paintings are a sort of décor writ large, and a small section devoted to photography, which feels like an appendage, and comes without enough contextualisation.
Anfam does include a single, squirming abstraction by Janet Sobel, who may have influenced Pollock, and includes Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, whose career was long overshadowed by his. Joan Mitchell is represented by two large works from 1960 and 1979, and it would have been instructive had she had a larger presence here.
Abstract expressionism came with a lot of critical as well as artistic bullshit, much of which Ad Reinhardt gleefully lampooned in his coruscating cartoons and statements. Reinhardt, whose paintings were close-toned and emphatically mute and inexpressive, was a sort of antidote to much of Ab Ex’s tub-thumping. He should have had a room of his own. One constant throughout the exhibition is the presence of sculptor David Smith, as if his sculptures give it spine and continuity. Smith is everywhere. Many of his smaller sculptures are essentially pictorial, and need silhouetting. Their curves and angles snag on the paintings beyond.
By the mid-1950s, abstract expressionism was over, whatever painters like Guston, Newman and Rothko went on to do, or what ideals and styles they clung to or renegotiated in the light of both their own maturity and the art that came after them: colour-field painting, formalist abstraction, minimalism, pop or whatever. They were not immune to the changing times. Guston in particular shifted focus in ways that only retrospectively make total sense.
With passing acknowledgements to Hans Hoffman (two works), a tally of the show gives us 15 Rothkos, 18 De Koonings, 13 works by David Smith and 12 paintings by Clyfford Still, who also gets a room to himself. Pollock said of Still that he “makes the rest of us look academic”. Still certainly made everyone else look like pygmies, with his oversized, riven scarps of claggy, craggy paint, with their fiddly, jagged interlocking fissures. We have probably never seen so many together as here, as the Clyfford Still Museum rarely lends works from its fastness in Denver, Colorado, where Anfam is senior consulting curator. Having so many Still paintings together may be a coup, but they cancel one another out.
There will never be a consensus as to what defines Ab Ex except a time and place “and a body of names”, Anfam tells us. What united the artists was the coincidence of individual artistic ambition, turned into the method-actor romanticism of cold-water lofts, bad coffee in Sixth Avenue cafeterias, fights at the Cedar Tavern, and frontlines being drawn between the downtown drinkers and brawlers and the uptown, suit-wearing aesthetes who hung about with the influx of European surrealists escaping the war. But this moment was short, and the legacy of abstract expressionism, and what happened through the subsequent decades, could have been better served.
Abstract Expressionism is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 24 September to 2 January