#AbEx Fills Royal Academy

LONDON.- Exploring an unparalleled period in American art, this long-awaited exhibition reveals the full breadth of a movement that will forever be associated with the boundless creative energy of 1950s New York.

In the “age of anxiety” surrounding the Second World War and the years of free jazz and Beat poetry, artists like Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning broke from accepted conventions to unleash a new confidence in painting.

Abstract Expressionism was born from the common experience of artists living in 1940s New York. Two World Wars, the Great Depression, atomic devastation and an ensuing Cold War prompted early works reflecting the darkness of these times, and fed into the movement’s concerns with contemplation, expression and freedom

Often monumental in scale, their works are at times intense, spontaneous and deeply expressive. At others they are more contemplative, presenting large fields of color that border on the sublime. These radical creations redefined the nature of painting, and were intended not simply to be admired from a distance but as two-way encounters between artist and viewer.

It was a watershed moment in the evolution of 20th-century art, yet, remarkably, there has been no major survey of the movement since 1959.

This exhibition closes next week, and manages to bring together some of the most celebrated art of the past century, offering the chance to experience the powerful collective impact of Pollock, Rothko, Still, de Kooning, Newman, Kline, Smith, Guston and Gorky as their works dominate the galleries with their scale and vitality.

Also acknowledged are the lesser-known figures who contributed to the development of the movement. Finally, we include photography and sculpture to complete an ambitious re-evaluation of the phenomenon that saw New York take over from Paris as the capital of the art world.

Although the Abstract Expressionists were friends, colleagues and lovers, each of the artists had their own unique style. Unlike what came before with Cubism and Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism did not appear to follow a set formula. This diversity is a celebration of the individual artist’s freedom to express themselves.

Scale is a trademark of Abstract Expressionism. A number of the artists had been influenced by the experience of painting murals for the New Deal’s Federal Art Project, with many going on to favor monumental canvases that almost engulf the viewer. Meanwhile David Smith’s sculptures were designed to be viewed in the openness of the outdoors.

The exhibition is curated by the independent art historian Dr David Anfam, alongside Edith Devaney, Contemporary Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts. Dr Anfam is the preeminent authority on Abstract Expressionism, the author of the catalogue raisonné of Mark Rothko’s paintings and Senior Consulting Curator at the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver.

The Exhibition is organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London with the collaboration of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Photo above: Barnett Newman, Profile of Light, 1967.