AbEx at the RA – a post script

Following on from my last blog post about the current Royal Academy exhibition devoted to Abstract Expressionism, I thought I’d draw the attention of interested parties to a piece by Peter de Bolla, which has just appeared  in the current (15th December) issue of London Review of Books.  

What, asks de Bolla, if painters resolutely turned their backs on representation, and, in its stead, embraced the concept of abstraction, were they actually going to paint? A question which, for most of the American artists showing at the RA, required some kind of negotiation with Cubism, Surrealism and the European avant-garde.

The artists who, for de Bolla, came up with the most effective answers were, predictably enough, Pollock, Rothko and Clifford Still, and he is excellent, I think, in his analysis of their practice and its results. More surprisingly, and, for me, pleasingly, is his conclusion, in which he singles out Joan Mitchell’s Mandres, as the late flowering apotheosis of the genre.

In Mandres (1961-62) Joan Mitchell created as astonishing summation of the various answers that had been proposed to the question of what the hell to paint.This is Abstract Expressionism’s greatest late work. Form, structure and content are interrogated and transformed by so vast a repertoire of techniques of pigment application that you lose count …

… There is no painting I know like it. I doubt there could ever be one.

Joan Mitchell: Mandres

Abstract Expressionism at the R.A.

In his introductory essay to the catalogue of the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, Abstract Expressionism, of which he was one of the two principal curators, David Anfam suggests that while it has proved difficult to pin down a clear definition of abstract expressionist style, there has long existed a consensus as to the major figures involved: start with Pollock and Rothko and add two or three more. Men,that is.

In 2010, as Anfam notes, the U.S. Postal Service issued ten stamps commemorating Abstract Expressionist painters: Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hoffman, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. And the name that jumps out, of course, is Mitchell’s. An artist who has been largely absent from most considerations of the AbEx canon; or if not absent, someone who was seen to be existing somewhere on the periphery. No call to query the reason why. As Anfam says, “she lingered on the margins for being a woman.”

He goes on to point out that in the 1,269 pages of his collected criticism, the intellectual champion of Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg, mentions Mitchell just once and then in passing. And yet her work had been included in major exhibitions of American Painting in New York and Chicago from 1951 onwards and in international touring shows organised by the Museum of Modern Art in 1956 and 57. She had solo shows in New York from 1952 through the 50s and in both Milan and Paris in 1960. To quote Anfan again: “A brilliant critic, everything Greenberg wrote nevertheless expressed his considerable ideological biases.”

Joan Mitchell: La Grande Vallée III
Joan Mitchell: La Grande Vallée XVI
Joan Mitchell: Le Chemin des Ecoliers
Joan Mitchell: Sunflowers

A choice here then for the curators of this show: to follow the established canon, while acknowledging the elements of bias inherent in it, or, without presenting a false picture, take steps to ensure a fairer balance, one which acknowledges the important work produced during the period in question by artists such as Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner and others.

Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler & Grace Hartigan at the opening of an exhibition of Frankenthaler’s paintings.

Guess …

Of the 12 rooms at the Royal Academy, five feature a mixture of work, five are given over to the heavyweights of the genre – Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Clifford Still, one is shared between Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, one between Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov and Robert Motherwell.  A lot of guys.There are just two works by Joan Mitchell in the exhibition, the strong and strikingly beautiful Mandres in the room named Gesture as Colour – a setting she shares happily with the likes of Philip Guston and Sam Francis – and a magnificent four panel work, Salut Tom, from 1979, in the final room, Late Works. Lee Krasner does rather better, with four pieces, including the imposing The Eye is the First Circle, painted as a tribute to her husband, Jackson Pollock, and displayed in the double room devoted to him. Helen Frankenthaler – a major figure, if not the major figure, in the colour-field subset – is represented by only one painting and not an especially good one at that. Thinking back to the exhibition of her work at Turner Contemporary in Margate in 2014, it’s clear how well, and how brilliantly, her large and vibrant canvasses would have shown here. As for Grace Hartigan, although she is referenced five times in the catalogue, not a single piece of hers is included.

Helen Frankenthaler with some of her paintings

Okay, moan over. Point, possibly, taken. What about the show as it exists? Well, it’s good, of course. Very much worth seeing. With so much good work, so many good pieces collected together, how could it fail to be? The space given over to Pollock, with canvasses ranging from his first epic canvas, Mural, painted in 1943 for one of walls in Peggy Guggenheim’s New York townhouse, through Summertime: Number 9A (1948) to the magnificent Blue Poles ((1952) – one of the few truly great paintings it’s been my good fortune to see in person – is fully deserved. And, depending on personal taste, there’s much else besides: two late de Koonings that seem to breath the same air as Richard Diebenkorn; Franz Kline’s Requiem, a belligerent doom-laden sky with apocalyptic overtones which seem to hark back to John Martin and forward to Anselm Kiefer; Louise Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral – Moon Garden + One, a wall sculpture made up of boxes and assorted shapes, bits and pieces of  machinery, of ‘stuff’, a three dimensional collage that somehow aspires to painting at the same time as seeming to refer to the free-standing, airy sculptures of David Smith, which are placed at the centre of almost every room, as if demanding a presence for something more real, more of the world than canvas and paint.

Finally, what about Rothko, I hear you say? Well, with the Rothkos there’s a serious problem, and that’s the choice of room in which most of them are displayed. You can see, I think, why that choice was made. The room is circular in shape, under a sort of rotunda, and, as such, it has echoes of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, a place for quiet, almost religious contemplation, time to let the paintings work on you in the way that, given time and space, they should. But this space is at the very cross-roads of the exhibition, with the result that people are forever passing to and fro, leaving little room or time to simply stand and stare. Certainly not sit, as, with all that movement, any benches, however necessary, would simply have got in the way.

The Abstract Expressionism exhibition is at the Royal Academy in London until January 2nd, 2017. The Robert Rauschenberg retrospective is at Tate Modern until April 2nd, and America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, is at the R.A’s Sackler Galleries from February 25th till June 4th.

National Poetry Day


Out of nowhere just the other day I started thinking about this movie in which a bearded Alan Bates plays an abstract painter, enjoying a painterly affair with Jill Clayburgh; I remember liking it at the time, even though part of me said perhaps it was a load of old technicolour tosh. Admitting to having not just enjoyed it, but seen it twice, certainly marked me down in the estimation of the one of my American Studies lecturers I most wanted to impress.

But back then I was more than a little in love with New York, with big, bold abstract canvasses, and, yes, of course, with Ms Clayburgh herself.




So here’s an old poem for National Poetry Day.


It was snowing in New York but that was Easter;
we walked past the rink where Clayburgh skated
in An Unmarried Woman, ate hot pretzels
and stood in line for pasta and clam sauce.

(can you still taste that?)

I can’t recall what I wanted for dessert
except the waiter said, “That’s disgusting!”
and refused to take my order.

Later we cruised the Village, hands
punched down into our pockets,
Kevin and I browsing the schedules
at the Bleecker Street Cinema
while you went next door into
the Magic Shoe Store and bought
a pair of bright scarlet boots

with wings


yes (you say) oh, yes

– from Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop) 2014

Against the Curve …

Bridget Riley: “Crest” 1964

Until Saturday 6th September, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill is hosting a small but impressive Bridget Riley retrospective: The Curve Paintings 1961 – 2014. Turn the first corner of the gallery and you come face to face with three of the black and white OpArt pieces from the 60s with which Riley first made her name – the work which, if Jonathan James is to be believed [and occasionally, beneath all that manufactured bluster and bad grace he does strike the truth] makes her, along with Howard Hodgkin, an artist of a very different abstraction, one of the two most important British artists of the modern age. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/11/messing-with-your-mind-bridget-riley-at-the-de-la-warr-pavilion

These pieces are extraordinary. [“Awesome!” as the small boy managed to shout before his parents dragged him back out in search of something else fattening to eat.] Let your eye for one minute engage and they will not let you go. They move. They do. You shift your eyeline, change your position, and still they move. Stare at them long enough and your eyes begin to ache; any longer and the floor beneath you seems to lurch, uncertain.

Well, she couldn’t carry on doing that forever.

What this show majors on are the larger, brightly coloured paintings of more recent years … no longer black and white but full, startling colour, which I thought must be done in acrylic, but no, it’s oil on linen; and curves which overlap and inter-connect. Most of the pieces large enough, bright enough to command the eye. I found them pleasurable, beautifully made, but little more than grandly decorative and though the pleasure they give is real, for me it was no longer lasting than the excellent Italian ice cream from the Di Paulo Café across the road.

Bridget Riley: Reve, 1999
Bridget Riley: Reve, 1999

Back in London, I made my third visit to the exhibition of Agnes Martin’s paintings at Tate Modern. Although she and Riley are both working within the field of what could loosely be called geometric abstraction, the work could scarcely be more different. Martin makes little attempt to stop you in your tracks, to claim your eye – should you choose to, and, sadly, people, too many people, do, you can stroll on by with hardly a second glance. There is no shout, no clamour; these paintings whisper, shift small degrees in an unseen breeze.

I Love the Whole World 1999 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 ARTIST ROOMS  Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AL00193
I Love the Whole World 1999 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AL00193

Somewhere between her early days sharing Manhattan studio space and coffee with the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, and her time living in a self-built adobe outside Taos, New Mexico, Martin turned her back on the curve in favour of the grid. Square canvasses, lines crossing the left to right, hand-drawn, at differing widths; bands of pale pastel colours, rose pink and blue grey – so pale sometimes it’s as if she begrudged them being colours at all. Something glimpsed in the first light of dawn, perhaps, or the last light of the sun. If people are content to stand and stare at clouds, Martin says, or the shifting patterns of waves on the sea, they should look at my paintings in the same way. Stand long enough, give yourself and the work time enough and the surface starts gradually to move, as do the sea or the sky. Not the violent, challenging movement of a Bridget Riley, but something smaller, calmer; a small vibration as the paint moves in and out of focus, as the minute breaks in the hand-drawn lines appear then disappear.

My paintings have neither objects nor space nor time nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.

Agnes Martin, 1966

My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square; they are rectangles, a little bit off square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way.

Agnes Martin: Writings, 1991


Agnes Martin: "Untitled" 1977
Agnes Martin: “Untitled” 1977

Most memorable is an installation of twelve large paintings, “The Islands”, which with its contemplative atmosphere is comparable to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. When you first enter the room, all twelve pieces seem to be the same square, ghostly white, lacking definition, lacking difference; stand a while and details begin to emerge, taking on shifting shape and form like islands that appear gradually, in and out of the mist; a wavering line here, a differing shade there – blues, greys and yellows – Martin’s colours – that seem to shimmer their way through the over-riding white and then just as strangely disappear.

Agnes Martin is at Tate Modern until October 11th.




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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life


Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life