This superlative show is huge in every sense: big themes, giant icons of mid century art, enormous canvases, and no small amount of ambition on the Royal Academy’s part, tackling an often shied from movement – or ‘ism’ – which was last explored in such a survey in the UK back in 1959.
Even for those unfamiliar with the movement, which at its heart sought to replace representational art-making with that informed by spontaneity and the subconscious, the staggering loans the RA has assembled here, combined with some beautifully hung rooms, recreates the impact this art had upon a world still reeling from devastation in the 1940s and 50s. It’s overpowering, and so it should be.
Indeed, the ambition is realised in superb gatherings of major figures; there’s more Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock here than you can shake a dripping paintbrush at, with many impressively wrangled from private collections. Yet preceding these are some fascinating early, representational works by the same: a modest Pollock self-portrait, for instance, is an unsettling surprise.
The sheer expanse of the show allows the RA to explore its ulterior ambition to challenge the New York-centric attribution of the movement, and its generalising division into those painting with gesture (Pollock) or colour (Rothko). Thus we are reintroduced to the overlooked Richard Pousette-Dart and Joan Mitchell, and much trumpeting is made of Clyfford Still’s vast expanses of canvas.
However by giving the ‘headliner’ artists whole rooms to themselves, while utterly impressive, the RA veers dangerously close to undermining its own point. Other whole-room themes work better, especially ‘The Violent Mark’, in which Franz Kline’s thrilling black and white stabbings are paired with Robert Motherwell’s more sombre works.
There’s an irony in the fact an exhibition this large, with so many large artworks, should struggle to cram in all the avenues it sets itself to explore. But we’re incredibly lucky to be treated to some of these rarely travelled loans and invigorating, bombastic artworks, many of which resonate strongly with today’s fractured world. The first abstract expressionism survey in sixty years is at least a definitive one.