Art Chronicles: Impulse


© Courtesy Pace Gallery. Images Damian Griffiths

Make your way to the rear of the Royal Academy, where the absorbing Jasper Johns retrospective has recently closed [who would have thought there were so many shades of grey?]  and, amongst the extension work in progress along Burlington Gardens, worm your way to the entrance to Pace London, which is hosting Impulse, a small – 13 pieces – well displayed, interesting and enjoyable show of post-painterly abstraction. [A journey almost as tortuous, perhaps, as getting to the end of that sentence – language as metaphor? Enough!]

Dating back to the 1960s and 70s, and seen as coming out of, as well as in opposition to, the first generation abstract expressionist work of Pollock and DeKooning, there’s an oft-told story of the moment that this later variation of (mostly) American abstract painting – also known as Colour Field painting – was born. The critic Clement Greenberg had taken the artist Helen Frankenthaler [they were at item] to Jackson Pollock’s studio to see him at work, and, inspired by this, Frankenthaler adapted what she had seen to her own ends.

“The method I used developed and departed essentially from Pollock. I did use his technique of putting the canvas on the floor. But in method and material, Pollock’s enamel rested on the surface as a skin that sat on top of the canvas. My paint, because of the turpentine mixed with the pigment, soaked into the woof and weave of the surface of the canvas and became one with it.”
Helen Frankenthaler in an interview with Gene Baro, Art International, 1967

The first notable result for Frankenthaler of using this technique was the 1952 painting, Mountains and Sea, which was, in turn, instrumental in the two leading Colour Field artists, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland [both present in this show] changing artistic direction – a Saul-to-Damascus moment engineered, once again, by Greenberg [well, he’s the person telling most of the story].

“The first sight of the middle period Pollocks and of a large and extraordinary painting done in 1952 by Helen Frankenthaler, called ‘Mountains and Sea’, led Louis to change his direction abruptly. Abandoning Cubism with a completeness for which there was no precedent in either influence, he began to feel, think, and conceive almost exclusively in terms of open colour.”

“The more closely colour could be identified with its ground, the freer would it be from the interference of tactile associations; the way to achieve this closer identification was by adopting watercolour techniques to oil and using thin paint on an absorbent surface.”
Clement Greenberg: “Louis and Noland” 1960

‘Tactile’, that’s the key word here, along with ‘interference’: this is a movement away from those vigorous lines that skipped across a Pollock canvas, those  mostly deliberate, semi-instinctive whirls and splotches that engendered energy and rhythm, they’ve had their day. The new art, Greenberg decreed, shall be the art without artist, without the artist’s tangible, visible presence made plain though his or her marks; somehow, it will be “purely visual” and open and “relatively anonymous” in its execution. A visual experience that is somehow purer and more all-encompassing.


© Courtesy Pace Gallery. Images Damian Griffiths.

Both Louis and Noland are represented here at Pace London, Louis with two pieces including, centrally, his vast 1958 work Plentitude [shown in the both installation views above] and Noland with the two smaller pieces seen immediately above, both from a period in the late 70s when he was experimenting  with abruptly angled canvases. Indo, from 1977, is quite mesmeric in its central grounding of mauvish blue, bordered and accentuated by thin strips of brighter, contrasting colours.

Frank Bowling, a British artist born in Guyana, moved to New York in the late 60s, whereupon his work moved increasingly towards abstraction; but, for me, the most interesting of his three pieces here is the beautiful 1978 At Swim Two Manatee, which leans back towards his earlier, more figurative work, and takes on, in its borders, an almost Pre-Raphaelite delight in intricate decoration.


‘At Swim Two Manatee’ Frank Bowling, 1978

For me, though, the most impressive artist on show is Sam Gilliam, whose work I came across for the first time [shame on me] in the groundbreaking Tate Modern show, Soul of a Nation, which also featured Bowling and the fifth artist showing at Pace, Ed Clark.


‘After Micro W #2’, Sam Gilliam, 1982 © ARS, NY & DACS, London 2017. 

From the late 60s, apparently, while still working on canvas in a regular way, Gilliam had begun soaking canvasses in paint and then folding and hanging them to make work that was part-painting, part-sculpture [Think Eva Hesse, think Barry Flanagan]. The three-dimensional nature of After Micro W, exhibited here, and Carousel Change, from Soul of a Nation, is such that you want not just to look, to soak up, as it were, the glorious movement and agglomeration of colour, but to reach out, if one were allowed, and touch. ‘Purely visual’, but ‘tactile’ too.

Noland had linked his practice and that of his fellow abstractionists with that of jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk – “what was new was the idea that something you painted could be like something you heard.” An idea taken up and progressed by Mark Godfrey in his essay, “Notes on Black Abstraction” from the Soul of a Nation catalogue.

“These artists may well have sensed that Coltrane’s ability to take apart the conventions of melody and rhythm found a parallel in their own interest in abandoning stretcher bars, flat surfaces and  brushes. To put it another way, what Coltrane did to ‘My Favourite Things’ and ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ equals what Gilliam and Loving did to Morris Louis and Frank Stella.”

The other piece of Gilliam’s on show that I love and kept returning to is Onion Skin from 1975, a large canvas which seems to reach back towards the abstract expressionism of the late 50s and early 60s, while having a progressive sense of rhythm and colour that is its own. There’s more than a hint of Jackson Pollock here, and in its organic use of line and colour you can see something, I think, of Sam Francis, but it’s a satisfying whole and Gilliam through and through.


‘Onion Skin’ Sam Gilliam, 1976. © ARS, NY & DACS, London 2017. Photograph Damian Griffiths


[In his excellent review of the show for Wall Street International, William Davie, describing this piece, draws a comparison with the paint-splattered floor of Pollock’s studio, and, fearing I’d stolen the idea, had to go back to my hastily scribbled notes to find a scribbled ‘artist’s floor’ in the margins. I don’t have that many vaguely original thoughts, I can discard them willy-nilly]

Impulse at Pace London finishes on Friday, 22nd December.



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.