BB When I was a young artist, I didn’t want to make abstract paintings that could be called “abstractions from nature”. There was a lot of early modern art that was made by seeing something and then abstracting it. I remember Life magazine’s full-colour reproductions of Rothko, and then on the opposite page, a sunset; then a Franz Kline, beautifully reproduced, and turn the page, a bridge scene at twilight. And the blurb underneath indicated that if you knew where to look in nature, you would see where the stimulations for these works came from. For Rothko that really wasn’t true. Rothko was trying to paint something that had no visibility at all.
AP It was more to do with emotion.
BB Yes, he was giving emotion visibility – an aspect of being human that couldn’t be identified through the eyes, except when you looked at his paintings.
AP The motivation these artists had for making paintings had very little to do with language and a lot to do with feeling. Therefore any attempt to explain them away is bound to fall short.
BB There was a lot of resistance to Abstract Expressionism when I was a student, but soon art schools became filled with it, filled with Pollock-esque paintings. That was wonderful in a way, but it soon became a cliché, like everything. Cliché happens very quickly. I suppose the problem for many people was that there was no way of finding any kind of control or choice in the mode. It just became a matter of splashing paint about. The frightful thing was when you had it programmed into fine art foundation courses. There were lessons where students were asked to express certain feelings on canvas, which was rubbish of course. You can’t do that. You can’t simply say “express this, express that”.
AP That’s interesting in relation to a book I’ve been looking at a lot recently, Annie Besant’s Thought Forms , which is a catalogue of illustrations that attempt to visualise and categorise emotion and sensation. I find them really comical in their over simplification. I quite like how they fall short, and find their failure to bridge the gap interesting. For me it’s a reminder that each of us is an individual, stuck within our own reality, constantly dealing with failures to communicate but also driven by the inherent need to communicate, to express something.
BB That goes back to the origins of modern art.
AP Absolutely. I recently saw the Hilma Af Klimt show at the Serpentine, and then the Georgiana Houghton watercolours at the Courtauld. Both these artists talked about channelling spirits in order to make their abstract paintings. Houghton was around in the 1860s and ’70s, making abstract watercolours way before anybody else. There was no platform for her and Af Klimt, partly because they were women, but also because no-one was making abstract work. It seems that by claiming they were channeling spirits they were able to deny some of the responsibility for making such unconventional works.
BB They were trying to visualise things that weren’t visible.
AP Yes, and then you look at the historical context – the scientific discoveries being made then, such as electricity. It must have felt like the opening up of a parallel universe. There must have been a feeling of endless possibility, that invisible forces could be made almost tangible, that you could potentially leap between the spiritual and physical realms with ease.
BB That is what Rothko came to represent for me. I couldn’t see him simply as a colourist or formalist. His work wasn’t to do with a relationship to a sunset. I have no doubt that Rothko liked sunsets and sunrises, but the imagery came from somewhere else.
AP My first interest in Abstract Expressionism came from Helen Frankenthaler, though she is seen as part of the second generation. She talked about her painting in relation to landscape.
BB You can see her connection to the landscape. But they weren’t abstractions from landscape.
AP That’s right. They are about her experience of landscape, how it makes her feel. Like the work of Peter Lanyon, whose paintings relate to his sensations of gliding.
BB Those paintings relate to the exhilaration of Lanyon’s experience – flying, glimpsing the ground, going through cloud and mist, and suddenly being confronted by something else.
AP It is hard to put works like that into words. And that can be a real problem when it comes to the way art is talked about, especially in the media – so often there is a drive towards headline-grabbing sound bites and easily digestible narrative. Things become a cliché because they are allowed to be condensed into something and to become uncomplicated. The Abstract Expressionists never really saw themselves as a group – they never wrote a manifesto – and one of the good things about this Royal Academy show is that it embraces a variety of approaches to abstraction.
BB Yes, what is tremendous in this show is the wide range of individuals – the room on Arshile Gorky, for example, who is a fantastic artist. It’s great that a lot of the artists have got their own rooms. You’ve got a whole experience of seeing not just one or two, but a whole group of paintings.
AP The diversity of work makes that quite important. In the Rothko room, the lights are lower and as a result the paintings loom out at you in quite an overbearing way. I liked the theatricality of the Rothko room. The spell would be broken if other artists had been added.
BB It’s one of those shows that I feel I need to see several times. It’s a great show. It makes me breathe deep, which is something I remember from when I first saw these works in 1959. That’s why I’m very interested in your view Aimée, how you see it now, because it is part of history whether we like it or not. But it wasn’t part of history when I first saw it.
Now we learn that it was the CIA that was behind the European exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism, including the Tate show. So why were we seeing that work? When Guston turned back towards figuration in the 1970s, he lost a lot of friends. But de Kooning understood. De Kooning came out of Guston’s exhibition and said, “That’s freedom”. And when I think about what the CIA was promoting to the rest of the world, I have that in mind.