#44. Nick Moore writes on Robert Motherwell, “Abstract Expressionism” at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery

Robert Motherwell, installation at Jacobson Gallery

Robert Motherwell, installation at Jacobson Gallery

‘Nothing as drastic an innovation as abstract art could have come into existence save as a consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience – intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.’ Robert Motherwell, ‘What Abstract Art Means to Me’.

After the cramped hang and the waves of people flooding the RA show, this exhibition is an oasis. It includes a taste of all the facets of Motherwell’s work, from the earliest collage Pierrot’s Hat, 1943 and drawing Untitled 1944, it encompasses large canvasses and small works on paper up to his last collage Blue Guitar, 1991; it is a spacious hang in quiet place, filled with vibrant power.

Motherwell was the youngest of the so-called Abstract Expressionists and in some ways the outsider; and indeed still is – he was not honoured with a room of his own at the current RA survey, his name doesn’t appear on the publicity, and ‘Plato’s Cave’ was squashed into a corner, an error not mitigated by the fact that the massive ‘Elegy For The Spanish Republic No 126’ was given a whole wall.


#43. Alan Gouk writes on Abstract Expressionism at the RA

Jackson Pollock, "Mural", 1943

Jackson Pollock, “Mural”, 1943

The prevailing trend in London to mount such exhibitions in gloomy half-light may serve to enhance Rothko, but it casts a pall of premature burial over many of the rooms, the first especially. However sensible this may be from a conservationist perspective, one wants to see these pictures survive in the light in which they were painted, and not in a reverential aura of profundity seeking historicism. The excessive use of the dimmer switch means that one is in the dark in one room, in half-light the next, and only in daylight for the “late works”.

This piece should be read as a pendant to my Letter from New York, 2011, on abstractcritical, which discusses many of these painters, and David Smith from the collection of MOMA, NY. in 2010, which was shown in daylight, and led to quite a different impression.

There is really only a little to add to the earlier piece. The more examples of Still’s work one sees, the more suspect the claims made for him become. These grandiloquent canyons of black endeavour to overawe by sheer size, sheer height. They are artistically somewhat inert, inexpressive, their handling cack-handed at worst, habitually clumsy and over emphatic, devoid of any of the subtleties of touch one would expect of a major sensibility. The sensibility, such as it is, is adamantine in a negative way, (in contrast to Mondrian’s positive). The only picture in his Black and Tan abstract vein which has some subtly artistic qualities is the smallest and earliest in that mode (1946?).


#42. Robin Greenwood writes on Alternative Narratives to Ab-Ex at the RA – plus a Review of the Reviews.

Hans Hofmann, "In Sober Ecstasy", 1965

Hans Hofmann, “In Sober Ecstasy”, 1965

“In Sober Ecstasy”…  I was, I was.

Not drunk, but pretty high. But not until the very last room of the show, having been bored and annoyed, as usual, by the uninteresting posturings of Still, Rothko and especially Newman; and somewhat underwhelmed by David Anfam’s selection of de Kooning and Pollock. Finally, here was a so-called Abstract Expressionist painting, “In Sombre Ecstasy” by (to quote Matt Dennis from his comment on the Motherwell post) “the criminally under-represented” Hans Hofmann (1965, from the Audrey and David Mirvish collection, Toronto) that was not only properly abstract, but also truly expressive. I think this is a really good painting, possible a great one. I think it might hold its own against a decent Cezanne or Matisse; I’d love to see it in the company of a good Tintoretto or Constable. I’d love to see it in good company, full stop.

I’ve seen it before, at the Hofmann show that Hoyland put together at Tate in 1988. I don’t recall being quite so taken with it then, but there was a lot to digest in that show – the whole oeuvre of Hofmann’s later works, and it was all new to me.

It’s the best Hofmann that I can now recall seeing, which must also make it one of the best abstract paintings I’ve seen. In my opinion it is a very integrated work, including the big rectangles, my frequent stumbling blocks (pun intended) with Hofmann, especially when they take over most or all of the painting. In this instance they are much more fully integrated with all of the other content – the powerful but unspecified movements which course both diagonally across, and back and forth through depth. The other general factor in this particular painting’s favour, compared with much other abstract painting, including far too many Hofmanns, is its completeness; it has been carried right through to a resolution, rather than left off at an early stage in a half-painted, half-bare-canvas state. Hofmanns are on the whole all the better for being fully worked up, and this one certainly is.


#41. John Bunker writes on Robert Motherwell at Jacobson

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

“Robert Motherwell: Abstract Expressionism” is at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, 16th september – 26th November 2016.

It’s a hard task to corral 40 odd years of painting history into a modest if well proportioned gallery space – especially if it’s the career history of an artist like Robert Motherwell. But what is lacking in breadth, here at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, is more than made up for in focus. One is, of course, also very aware that this gallery is attempting to shine a bright light on Motherwell in the somewhat long shadows cast from across the road by the Royal Academy’s dizzying ‘Abstract Expressionism’ show. Here we have the likes of the portentous Clifford Still dominating the proceedings. It’s funny how so much verbal fire and brimstone can turn so quickly to miserly one-upmanship and tawdry painterly theatrics. But that’s Abstract Expressionism for you – well, a certain kind of it anyway – one that to my mind, Robert Motherwell, with his graphic flair and visceral clarity, has quietly eclipsed – a rogue moon leaving the orbit of a dying star.


#40. Harry Hay writes on Philip Guston, Henri Matisse and the Politics of the Idle.

Philip Guston, "Stranger", 1964

Philip Guston, “Stranger”, 1964

“Why am I like this?” Oblomov asked himself almost with tears, hiding his head under the blanket again. “Why?”

After seeking in vain for the hostile source that prevented him from living as he should, as the ‘others’ lived, he sighed, closed his eyes, and a few minutes later drowsiness began once again to benumb his senses… He was passing from agitation to his normal state of calm and apathy… So he never arrived at the cause, after all; his tongue and lips stopped in the middle of the sentence and remained half open. Instead of a word, another sigh was heard, followed by the sound of the even snoring of a man who was peacefully asleep.

From Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, first published 1859.

When David McKee gallery closed its doors in 2015, representation of Philip Guston’s estate was passed over to Hauser & Wirth, who celebrated this coup with an exhibition of his abstract work from 1957-67 at their gallery in New York, which is where I saw it in June this year. I want to make it very clear that this is not a review. The moment has passed and I have no particular desire to pick apart this grouping of works, which was mainly comprised of greyscales, floating ‘heads’ and the pure drawings he made in Florida while having some sort of an artistic crisis. The whole exhibition seemed to be accompanied by something of a concession that this is not really Guston’s best work, and that it is simply interesting to see the hints and suggestions at what would come later, what we are all yearning for, the return to figuration. This is really problematic on so many levels, not least the assumption that the late figurative works are any good, but that it also seems that the only way an artist’s voice can be ‘heard’ is by having something to ‘say’, and that the only way to ‘speak’ in art is to deal in recognisable imagery. But as fascinating as Hieroglyphics are, they are not paintings, and I question the extent to which any painting reveals itself through the conventions of language. Sure, it is subject to certain rules and conventions, but it is we who use language to understand what those conventions and meanings are. We interpret, but the painting imparts nothing directly. This is what Guston seems to struggle with in his later work, however open-ended the narrative connotations of his imagery may be. His frustration with abstract painting is well documented, “The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, then going into a frustrated fury about everything, and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid… Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.” [i] I have some sympathy for this frustration, and yet many a painter before Guston has lived through equally tumultuous times, and yet still managed to remain committed to achieving their aims most appropriate to the chosen discipline.


#39. John Bunker writes in anticipation of “Abstract Expressionism” at the RA

Lee Krasner, “The Eye is the First Circle”, 1960, oil on canvas, 235.6x487.4cm. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016 Photo Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

Lee Krasner, “The Eye is the First Circle”, 1960, oil on canvas, 235.6×487.4cm. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016 Photo Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

“… Like a Tongue to a Loosening Tooth.”

Thoughts in anticipation of the upcoming Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy, 24th September 2016 – 2nd January 2017.

“…It seems that I cannot quite abandon the equation of Art with lyric. Or rather – to shift from an expression of personal preference to a proposal about history – I do not believe that modernism can ever quite escape from such an equation. By “lyric” I mean the illusion in an art work of a singular voice or viewpoint, uninterrupted, absolute, laying claim to a world of its own. I mean those metaphors of agency, mastery, and self-centredness that enforce our acceptance of the work as the expression of a single subject. This impulse is ineradicable, alas, however hard one strand of modernism may have worked, time after time, to undo or make fun of it. Lyric can not be expunged from modernism, only repressed.

Which is to say that I have sympathy with the wish to do the expunging. For lyric is deeply ludicrous. The deep ludicrousness of lyric is Abstract Expressionism’s subject, to which it returns like a tongue to a loosening tooth.”

TJ Clark, “In Defence of Abstract Expressionism,” Farewell to an Idea.

The RA blockbuster autumn extravaganza promises to seduce us with its knock-out line up of Abstract Expressionist paintings in its lofty neoclassical halls. But scrape beneath the veneer of showtime spectacle and the history of this movement is a battleground of interpretation. It is littered with the burnt out wreckage of a thousand blood-thirsty intellectual engagements between titans of art history from the Left and the Right. By comparison, art making now seems to operate in the uncanny silence that has descended on an ideological no-mans land. But first, please forgive a digression…


#38. Charley Peters writes on Mary Heilmann at the Whitechapel Gallery

“Maricopa Highway”, 2014, oil on canvas, 106.6x106.6x3.1cm, ©Mary Heilmann; Photo credit: Marie Catalano, Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

“Maricopa Highway”, 2014, oil on canvas, 106.6×106.6×3.1cm, ©Mary Heilmann; Photo credit: Marie Catalano, Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Mary Heilmann, ‘Looking at Pictures’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery 8 June – 21 August 2016


Among the paintings that conclude Mary Heilmann’s ‘Looking at Pictures’ at Whitechapel Gallery is ‘Maricopa Highway’ (2014). One of Heilmann’s most recent works, it is evocative of driving at night along scenic highways and the familiar narratives of road movies and video games. ‘Maricopa Highway’s’ nocturnal palette is uncharacteristically naturalistic and subdued, Heilmann’s vibrant choice of colour having been quickly established in her shift from ceramics and sculpture to painting in the early 1970s. In many ways this, like the other paintings of roads and oceans in the final section of the exhibition, feels like Heilmann making a definitive move into more overtly representational painting; diagonal stripes suggest perspective recession and more literally, road markings illuminated by a car’s headlights. The real Maricopa Highway is a little-travelled state highway in Southern California and the route taken by Heilmann’s parents as they drove from San Francisco to LA during her childhood. This describes well the way in which Heilmann makes paintings in which a personal narrative is alluded to through her choice of title, for example, ‘311 Castro Street’ (2001), which was her grandmother’s address, ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’ (1989), the title of a book by Jean Genet, of whom Heilmann says she is a fan. This personal connection to her own work is consistent through titles that denote significant memories, friendships, places and songs. Heilmann herself assumes a self-referential position in her 1999 memoir The All Night Movie, in which she wrote, ‘Each of my paintings can be seen as an autobiographical marker’. ‘Looking at Pictures’ makes much of Heilmann as an artist who paints her own life – the exhibition title itself is taken from a section of her aforementioned biography – but there is nothing pure or definitive about Heilmann’s approach to painting. Where she embraces abstraction as a referent for personal experience, she also denotes its more formal concerns, albeit with a casual and knowing imperfection. In ‘Maricopa Highway’ the duality of Heilmann’s methodology is well illustrated. She presents not just a scene of driving at night towards a distant vanishing point but a fractured reality of two different viewing positions placed consecutively. The diagonal lines are both road markings and a reduced abstract form composed on a shaped geometric canvas. Her application of paint is in part dense and almost flat, in part a translucent gestural wash. Throughout ‘Looking at Pictures’ Heilmann’s paintings reveal an adjacency of formalism and narrative, simultaneously telling stories of the proximity of herself to the work and also her objective distance while working towards an established language of abstract motifs.


#37. Tim Scott writes on Abcrit, Caro and Abstract Sculpture

Caro with his sculpture "Millbank Steps", 2004

Caro with his sculpture “Millbank Steps”, 2004

Surveying the numerous analyses in abstractcritical and Abcrit, it is evident that one subject has occupied the attention of many contributors: that of defining the meaning(s) of the word ‘abstract’. From technical definitions: ‘non objective’; ‘non figurative’; ‘non representational’; ’concrete’ etc., etc. to the more abstruse renderings defining the ‘break with traditional norms of painting ’; or rendering traditional material into non mimetic ‘form’, or Picasso’s projection of collage into three dimensions to create a new medium for sculpture, ‘construction’.

The term has also been widely interpreted to signify a new art form, one that eliminates mimetic illusion in favour of representing nothing but itself. Others argue that there is no such thing as representing ‘nothing’; everything must ‘represent’ something; every blob, every mark, is capable of being ‘something’ else.  ‘Abstraction’ is seen as being in a continuum from the past (of painting), through periodic changes of ‘making’ that create a new pictorial vision of the world, albeit by illusion. It can also be seen as  a complete break with the forms of the past in favour of new norms (usually largely derived from geometry), which are seen as representing a totally ‘abstract’ new ‘reality’, its subject not being derived from nature, but being ‘scientific’ in its new ‘truth’ (ignoring that science itself deals with ‘nature’). Yet another interpretation is seen as being the hallmark of a ‘modern’ art, an art that is of our time and synchronises with other major changes in society, living styles, engineering and technical development, all the signals that suggest that man has evolved, improved and developed in time.

Whichever semantic definition one prefers, abstraction as used to signify a new Art Form (of the 20th C.), which, though building on the foundations of the ‘old art’ (via the 19th C.), is perceived as radically different in its vision (pace all the arguments about abstract ‘content’).  Much discussion, however, has been about the ‘stepping stones’ of the 19th C.; in which abstraction is viewed as having always been integral to making art (largely painting) and which in its ‘modern’ (mid 19th C. on) developments, though representational, rejected the old formulae of three dimensional illusion, spatial perspective depth etc. to evolve totally new ways of looking, seeing and describing.


#36. Tim Scott and Robin Greenwood discuss Abstract Sculpture

Tim Scott, "Bridge of Echoes I", 2014

Tim Scott, “Bridge of Echoes I”, 2014, laminated paper (for plywood)

The following is taken from a recent exchange of emails.

Tim Scott: Dear Robin, I thought you might like to read this by Clement Greenberg, re Abcrit discussions on “abstract content”:

“….The quality of a work of art inheres in its “content”, and vice versa. Quality is “content”, you know that a work of art has content because of its effect. The more direct denotation of effect is “quality”. Why bother to say that a Velasquez has “more content” than Salvador Rosa when you can say more simply and with direct reference to the experience you are talking about, that the Velasquez is “better” than the Salvador Rosa? You cannot say anything truly relevant about the content of either picture, but you can be specific, and relevant about the difference in their effect on you. “Effect” like “Quality” is “content”, and the closer reference to actual experience of the first two terms makes “content “virtually useless for criticism………indulge in that kind of talk about “content” myself. If I do not do so any longer is because it came to me, dismayingly, some years ago that I could always assert the opposite of whatever it was I did say about “content” and not get found out; that I could say almost anything I pleased about “content” and sound plausible……”

Robin Greenwood: Thanks Tim. We all define these things a bit differently, don’t we, but I’ve found the idea of “abstract content” quite useful recently. Time will tell if I’ve got it right or wrong.

Tim Scott: I’m interested. Are you saying that “abstract content” is different to any other sort of content? (Clem says it’s all the same but should be called “quality”; he doesn’t use the word “value”, as in value judgement.) Another point he doesn’t touch on is whether there is any difference between “sculpture content” and “painting content” in terms of definition.


#35. David Sweet writes on Image, Object, and the Tradition of Paintedness

Robert Rauschenberg, "Collection", 1954-55, SFMOMA

Robert Rauschenberg, “Collection”, 1954-55, SFMOMA

The genre of the painting-relief/construction has been around for some time. Recently, however, this hybrid category has become more prominent, almost suggesting that, at a time when ‘pure’ painting struggles for relevance, the medium’s best chance of survival could depend on forming a coalition with the object.

There’s nothing very new about work in this category. Major exhibitions of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both at the Whitechapel in 1964, made an impressive case for merging the characteristics of two separate disciplines.[i] But the terms of the partnership favoured painting. Both artists developed their careers in the era of Abstract Expressionism and their gestural painting style derived its authority and confidence from that movement, even though they deployed it in a semi-satirical manner. Partial irony didn’t reduce the power of the painterly force that overwhelmed and absorbed the heterogeneous elements that their works contained.

The results were cluttered and palpable enough to be classed as ‘objects’, but they weren’t covered by the critique of literalism that the slightly later work of the minimalists received. Frank Stella’s paintings also manifested object-like tendencies but were exempt from this same criticism. Michael Fried argued that the pictorial activity of the ‘depicted’ shape, established their credentials as paintings by ‘defeating objecthood’.