American Revolutionaries

Abstract Expressionism was the US’s first truly original native style, bringing new scale and energy to art

Michael Prodger

Tragedy, ecstasy , doom: “Water of the Flowery Mill”, 1944, by Arshile Gorky (©ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016; photo ©2016 Metropolitan Museum of Art/ARS)

The history of American art prior to the mid 20th century was not a particularly distinguished one. There had been occasional efflorescences such as the epic landscapes of the 19th-century Hudson River School and distinctive individual artists such as Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe. By and large, though, America had always taken its lead from Europe where the welter of early-century movements — Fauvism, Cubism, Vorticism, Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism and the like — followed one another so rapidly that they seemed to suck the oxygen out of experimentation and originality on the other side of the Atlantic.

With the end of the Second World War, however, everything changed: postwar exhaustion was reflected in European art; America, on the other hand, was energised. The felicities of time, place (largely New York) and personnel (a group of young artists, many of whom knew one another, and all of whom had been exposed to exhibitions of modern European art) led to America’s first truly original native style — Abstract Expressionism.

The name was coined by the critic Robert Coates in 1946, even though the work was neither all abstract nor indeed expressionist. It wasn’t unified either: some artists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, were “action painters” whose work was defined by spontaneity and movement; others, such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, were “colour field” painters who relied on the emotive potential of large areas of colour. What linked the artists was that they all embraced the spirit of revolt; they worked on a huge scale; they gave primacy to the paint surface and the “all-over composition” — every part of the canvas was important; they believed in the act of painting itself and that abstraction could contain meaning. Rather than thinking of themselves as Abstract Expressionists, they preferred to be known the “New York School”. However they were known, the group — with Clyfford Still, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston among the other key players — quickly became art world darlings and Ab Ex itself, with its energy and excitement, became the fons et origo of much subsequent American painting, heavily promoted by the influential critic Clement Greenberg. Not that its legacy is entirely beneficent: Robert Hughes believed that Ab Ex “encouraged a phony grandiloquence, a confusion of pretentious size with scale, that has plagued American painting ever since”.

Nevertheless, this celebrated, influential and high-worth style is the subject of a major exhibition at the Royal Academy (until January 2 next year) which seeks to unpick both the links and the differences that comprised the movement. With 150 works, it represents the most significant display of Ab Ex in this country since 1959 when an exhibition called “The New American Painting” at the Tate, sponsored by a CIA front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, first introduced the New York School to Cold War Britain as an exemplar of freedom of expression and cultural innovation.

One of the perceptions the show challenges is that the movement (even though there was no mission statement) was the preserve solely of white male painters. Among the works on show are sculptures by David Smith and Louise Nevelson, who, with Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner, was one of several women at the heart of Abstract Expressionism. Norman Lewis, meanwhile, was an African-American of Caribbean descent. The show also includes works by West Coast artists such as Sam Francis and Mark Tobey to show that New York’s predominance was not a monopoly.

If the exhibition is a reappraisal it is also an opportunity to look behind the personal myths that so inflect the pictures — the doomed Pollock, dead at 44 in a car crash; the tragic Gorky, who hanged himself (again, at 44); Rothko, another suicide, by slit wrists and an overdose, aged 66. What Abstract Expressionism actually expressed, said Rothko, was “tragedy, ecstasy, doom” and while these themes may have been heightened by the historical moment of the works’ creation — between one global conflict and the prospect of a terminal new outbreak — they are the perennial subjects of art, literature and music.

There is, though, a theme that Rothko didn’t note which underlies the works and links the artists more specifically with their country and its past: nature. A century after the Hudson River painters pioneered America’s first national movement the Ab Ex anti-traditionalists gave their homeland’s vast landscape a vibrant resurrection.

Upstairs at the RA, in the Sackler Galleries, there is an exhibition (from October 29 until January 29, 2017) of a highly distinctive artist, James Ensor (1860-1949), whose work is undoubtedly expressionist if never abstract (although his ideas sometimes were). Ensor was a classically trained Anglo-Belgian painter who spent almost all his life living in the seaside town of Ostend, for much of it above his mother’s souvenir shop. It was the carnival masks she sold, with their strange mixture of the gay and the macabre, that feature prominently in his pictures and make them so unsettling.

“Reason and nature are the enemy of the artist,” he said, and his pictures are evidence of his wholehearted belief in this maxim. Ensor painted crowd scenes that combine Bible stories with a sinister Mardi Gras. His works verge on caricature and are peopled by living skulls, real portraits, clowns and a grinning mob, all painted in bright colours with a flickering and endlessly restless brush. Behind them can be felt the influence of artists from Turner to Watteau and, most pertinently, Goya — the exemplar of the painter of the interior realm.

As with many of Goya’s works Ensor’s are so personal and ambiguous that it remains difficult to understand just what it was the artist was expressing — indeed, they can frequently be baffling. But, again like Goya, the pictures have an expressive force that makes their mood just as important as any meaning.

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