Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts Reviewed by

Fergus Burnett-Skelding

ARTiculation Alumni 2016

As I listened to the last of my competitors at the ARTiculation final 2016, I felt a sinking feeling. I knew my speech, on Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 11/Blue Poles’ (1952), would not win. My presentation was academically strong, but unlike everyone else’s it lacked a personal angle. I had never even seen the painting I was speaking about. Imagine my excitement, then, when the ARTiculation team invited to visit the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionist exhibition this past October. This was perhaps my only opportunity to see my favourite painting, which normally resides in Australia. This is my personal reaction to seeing ‘Blue Poles’ for the first time, and a review of the exhibition as a whole.

When I entered the exhibition space I made straight for ‘Blue Poles’. I found the piece, my piece, in an alcove, set apart from the sea of other paintings. As I surveyed the piece I realised that I was nervous. Would the points I had made in my speech, based purely on photographs and academic research, be vindicated?

The scale was what struck me first. Standing two meters from the work, all I could see was an explosion of orange and yellow enamel paint, punctuated by the eponymous blue poles. The glossiness of the paint provides dynamism through the contrast between areas that are hit by the light and those that are not, an effect which is only noticeable when you stand in front of the piece. Another quality of the work that I had not expected is its three-dimensionality. Filaments of paint overlap, creating a sense that the piece extends past the blue poles. These poles did not look like a measured compositional choice. They did not seem, as the label unhelpfully suggests, influenced by the procession of abstracted figures in ‘Mural’ (1943), which hangs opposite. They seem, and are, an arbitrary addition. Leaning close to the piece, I saw the glass that Pollock had smashed in the paint as he drunkenly added the poles to a work in progress. The poles are the work of a violent alcoholic. The piece is such an intimate record of Pollock’s personality that I could feel his presence as I stood before it. I will never forget how ‘Blue Poles’ set my heart racing as only a true love can.

After about twenty minutes I began to move on through the exhibition, noticing how little blank wall space there was. Hundreds of the most famous 20th century works have been piled in, ready to be scrutinised. For those with little artistic knowledge the number of similar pieces must be overwhelming. Clyfford Still, whose pieces feature prominently, is known for abstracted mountain scenes which, when viewed in isolation, allow viewers to vicariously experience the relationship between man and nature. The room full of his paintings in the RA, however, homogenises his work. You can, after all, have too much of a good thing.

PH-950 (1950), Clyfford Still. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver. Photo: courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver; © City and County of Denver/DACS 2016

This is not to say that the exhibition is badly curated; it must be hard to engage a layman whilst satisfying the interests of an art historian. Personally, I found the opportunity to see so many famous pieces exhilarating, but then I am an Art History student and so not the most impartial of judges. There was one room, however, that enthralled everyone. The walls of the domed central hall have been adored with Mark Rothko canvases; a chapel dedicated to the sublimity of nature. His colour fields mirror aspects of the natural world whilst at the same time depicting a dimension accessible only to the artist. The paintings appeal to an atavistic aestheticism that is present within everyone, regardless of art historical education.

Unfortunately, the notes describing Rothko’s paintings are less than appealing. They are the writing on the wall for this exhibition. The Rothko buzzwords-transcendent, lucid, ethereal-are used in a way that confuse rather than enlighten. This intellectual snobbishness runs through the exhibition. In the final room the notes read ‘East Hampton, whence the artist moved at the end of his life’. The use of the archaic word ‘whence’ not only makes art seem inaccessible, it is just plain wrong! ‘Whence’ should be replaced with ‘whither’. Considering just how 19th century some of the exhibition feels, it is odd that they do not seem aware of the subtleties of 19th century language. In the year when the Art History A-Level was scrapped for being ‘elitist’, it would be sensible for the Royal Academy to try and interest, rather than alienate, the masses.

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