From the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
1. How was Abstract Expressionism different to what came before?
Crucially Abstract Expressionism, or ‘Ab Ex’ (as I always call it for short), happened at a juncture when nearly all the major movements of the first half of the 20th century had more or less run their course. I’m thinking particularly of Cubism, Surrealism, German Expressionism, Fauvism and Neo-Plasticism. Furthermore, New York in the 1930s and 1940s offered extraordinarily rich opportunities for the emergent artists to come into direct contact with the artworks of these earlier movements.
For example, the city’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) ran one exhibition after another charting the development of Modernism. These ranged from ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ and ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’ (both 1936) to ‘Large-Scale Modern Paintings’ (1947) – not to mention a slew of big monographic shows devoted, for instance, to Henri Matisse (1931), Pablo Picasso (1939) and Paul Klee (1941). Additionally, MoMA held other shows featuring the three great Mexican muralists – Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros – as well as what were perceived as the non-European sources for Modernism, among them Aztec, Mayan, Inca and African art. The Mexicans exerted a great influence on Jackson Pollock from the late 1930s onwards and even the ever-independent Clyfford Still based at least one 1936 painting on a sculpture in the museum’s ‘African Negro Art’ show of the previous year. Likewise, in 1941 at MoMA, Pollock witnessed at first-hand Navajo artists execute a sand painting on the ground – there’s no doubt this was a factor that, six years later, led him to place his canvases on the floor. Private galleries in Manhattan, such as those run by Pierre Matisse, Julien Levy and Curt Valentin, added their own complement by exhibiting, say, Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico and Piet Mondrian.
In effect, therefore, the Abstract Expressionists were living in a veritable museum without walls at precisely the stage when they were discovering themselves. The net result was that an exceptional array of sources, references and touchstones fed into Ab Ex, making the final mix altogether idiosyncratic (and I haven’t even touched upon the ideological layers). Indeed, they render Ab Ex such a complex phenomenon that it eludes the neat definitions that are handy for enclosing whatever constitutes a ‘movement’. Without wishing to deny the depth and breadth of Cubism, Surrealism or, later, Pop Art, some would say that Ab Ex at least matches and arguably even exceeds their intricacy and diversity. This alone makes Ab Ex different from what had come before. It incorporated most of those earlier things – and then some.
Quite simply, too, the fully mature art looks little or nothing like what came before it. Surrealists, such as André Masson and Max Ernst, may have dripped paint and allowed the motion of their hands free play – what is called ‘automatism’ – yet there is no real equivalent in pre-Second World War art for how a classic 1947 – 50 pouring by Pollock strikes the beholder. Similarly, although we may well see the influence of Matisse, Pierre Bonnard and even Mondrian
in Mark Rothko’s hovering chromatic rectangles from around 1950 onwards (pictured), these imageless icons are utterly his own.
The same applies to Ad Reinhardt’s final abstractions, each composed of nine squares arranged in three rows. To be sure, there’s a pedigree leading back to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915). Yet Reinhardt pushes his pursuit of darkness to such a subtle, extreme threshold – the tenebrous image is barely visible, the ‘blacks’ are subliminally tinted and oil has been extracted from the pigment to give it an inimitable velvety texture – that we’re light years from Malevich’s Suprematism and, if anything, closer to the challenges of optical illusion found in Op Art (although Reinhardt would of course have rightly denied the slightest comparison).
From another angle, the rawness pervading Franz Kline’s paintings (Vawdavitch, 1955, pictured) – in which daringly imbalanced and colliding masses of black and white battle for mastery – sets them apart from European precedents. Turning to three dimensions, a great deal of sculptor David Smith’s achievement (Volton XVIII, 1963, page 54) certainly grew from Julio González and Picasso’s welded steel pieces. Nonetheless, by the time we get to Smith’s ‘Forging’ and ‘Cubi’ series’, they are sui generis: the former’s slenderest uprights are minimalist and the latter involve dazzling geometries. Nor had there been visual documentation of artists in action that were of quite the same nature as Hans Namuth’s photographs and films of Pollock. You could continue the list, but the point is clear. No matter how familiar Ab Ex may have become, it’s impossible to lose sight of its immense originality, the differences that set it apart.