In September 2016, the Royal Academy of Arts will present the first major exhibition of Abstract Expressionism to be held in the UK in almost six decades. With over 150 paintings, sculptures and photographs from public and private collections across the world, this ambitious exhibition encompasses masterpieces by the most acclaimed American artists associated with the movement – among them, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Phillip Guston, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Aaron Siskind, David Smith and Clyfford Still, as well as lesser-known but no less vital artists. The selection aims to re-evaluate Abstract Expressionism, recognising that though the subject is often perceived to be unified, in reality it was a highly complex, fluid and many-sided phenomenon. Likewise, it will revise the notion of Abstract Expressionism as based solely in New York City by addressing such figures on the West Coast as Sam Francis, Mark Tobey and Minor White.
To ensure an exhibition for the 21st century, informed by new thinking, Abstract Expressionism will reexamine the two main strands into which these artists have often been grouped in the past. Namely, the so-called ‘colour-field’ painters, such as Rothko and Newman, versus the ‘gesture’ or ‘action painters’, epitomised by de Kooning and Pollock. The art of the former has been held to focus on the contemplative or sublime use of colour, whereas the latter supposedly demonstrated spontaneity and improvisation in their work through bold gestural mark-making. Yet these categories are simplistic, belying the deeper concerns that linked many of the artists. For example, various Abstract Expressionists developed the ‘all-over composition’ by rejecting the formal concept of an image with a single or central focus. Instead, they thought in terms of energised fields, whether of vibrant colour or linear dynamism. Concerns such as myth-making, the sublime, monochrome and an urge to stress the human presence even in abstraction also connected the artists. Similarly, their creations challenged conventional notions of scale with dimensions that ranged from minute intimacy to epic grandeur – dramatic innovations that the exhibition will highlight.
For the first time, the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, which holds 95% of the artist’s work, will loan nine major paintings to the exhibition, establishing the artist at the very forefront of Abstract Expressionism. The paintings by Clyfford Still will be presented in a dedicated gallery within the exhibition. Jackson Pollock’s monumental Mural, 1943 (University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa) and Blue Poles, 1952 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) will be displayed in the same gallery for the first time, a juxtaposition unlikely to ever be repeated.
Further highlights will include Arshile Gorky’s Water of the Flowery Mill, 1944 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Willem de Kooning’s Woman II, 1952 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York); Franz Kline’s Vawdavitch, 1955 (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago); Mark Rothko’s No. 15, 1957 (Private Collection); Lee Krasner’s The Eye is the First Circle, 1960 (Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York); and David Smith’s Hudson River Landscape, 1951 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Works by artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Lee Krasner and Ad Reinhardt will also feature amongst others. In addition to Aaron Siskind and Minor White, the photographers will include Harry Callahan, Herbert Matter and Barbara Morgan.
Dr David Anfam, co-curator of Abstract Expressionism said: “Abstract Expressionism will explore this vast phenomenon in depth and across different media, revealing both its diversity and continuities as it constantly pushed towards extremes. It will bring together some of the most iconic works from around the world in a display that is unlikely to be repeated in our lifetime.”
Abstract Expressionism has been organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London with the collaboration of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The exhibition is curated by the independent art historian, 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.
Exhibition Tour: Royal Academy of Arts, London, 24 September 2016 – 2 January 2017; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 3 February – 4 June 2017.
Catalogue: Abstract Expressionism will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue. Authors include David Anfam, author of the now-standard textbook Abstract Expressionism (1990); Susan Davidson, Senior Curator, Collections and Exhibitions, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Edith Devaney, Curator of Contemporary Projects, Royal Academy of Arts; Jeremy Lewison, former Director of Collections at Tate; Carter Ratcliff author of Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art (1996) and Christian Wurst, researcher on The Catalogue Raisonné of the Drawings of Jasper Johns (forthcoming).