“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.
Unlike much of the painting in this show, this Hofmann has something of the quality of resolved tensions of duality between two and three-dimensions which is a frequent contributor to the successful spatial content of many great figurative paintings, but not often achieved in abstract work. The space is fluid and coherent, the colour is resonant (someone called the colour “faecal”, but I love all those varied orange and reddish-browns), and you can move without impediment right across and through the whole work. It’s a great deal more than just “push and pull”. It has variety and scale, works from far or near, and I can’t really fault it, though its orthogonal set-up and echoing yellows may possibly in the end count against it just a little. But compare it with any of the brutish Clyfford Stills, which are so singularly and monolithically tensionless (apart from the one – the best one, but can’t remember the title – that has a meandering diagonal line on a dark background, which does at least start to have a physical sense of unease in its “tipping” quality), to see how fluid, varied and limber the Hofmann is. It would probably be no good to try NOW to imitate it or follow too closely in its footsteps; it’s too much of a culmination of Hofmann’s long-fought-for style to enable imitation to succeed. But my high opinion of it ignores the context of Hofmann’s career or any other context, and I judge it as a one-off. Try that approach out on most of the other work in this show and see how little of it stands up when separated from the bolstering effect of the artist’s repetitive signature style. Imagine being stuck on a desert island with a single Barnett Newman… the boredom of it!
[The picture (above) of this painting is from the RA merchandising website, and not a good reproduction, but all I could find. It is reasonably well reproduced in books and catalogues. It’s in the catalogue for this show and in the RA magazine, where Mali Morris writes about it; also in the Tate catalogue from 1988; and there is a rather good reproduction in the German catalogue from a few years back, “Hans Hofmann: Magnum Opus”.]
Other works in this show worth a proper look are Joan Mitchell’s “Mandres”, 1961-2; Jack Tworkov’s “Transverse”, 1957-8; and de Kooning’s big “Composition”, 1955 (from the Guggenheim). Though I would have liked to have seen more by these artists, none of these particular examples hold up for long under serious consideration, for various reasons; the Mitchell is initially exciting, but in the end too gratuitously gestural, to the extent that the point of the painting is lost in the recklessness of the rather savage (and tonal) processes (maybe that is the point of the painting, in which case it’s not for me). It’s also become, like many of her works, too much of an isolated image in the middle of a bare canvas ground. She’s a bit formulaic, and those strident, slashing gestures are a little clichéd – too unvaried and too literal.
The Tworkov is a brave and more subtle attempt to invigorate the content by getting physically stuck in, but it ends up vague and sketchy. And the de Kooning doesn’t bear looking at for too long before the drawing in paint becomes intrusive and destructive of the very space it tries to construct; plus the colour is not really at all sensitive or interactive in the way it is in the Hofmann.
Pity then, that Anfam has hung the best painting in the show by a mile (the Hofmann, I mean) in a constricted corner of the last room, whilst giving his favourite, the unimaginative Still, a whole room with acres of wall-space. Why is Hofmann so frequently marginalised, when he is undoubtedly the best of all these painters?
I thought in general the selection and the curation was poor. Regarding the latter, for example, you can’t hang a couple of big, minimal Rothkos within eighteen inches of one another and expect the Rothko fan club (not me)to be able to look at either one in isolation. And the Hofmann is imposed upon by a gigantic Mitchell, too close by on the adjacent wall. If you can get beyond this imposition, it does demonstrate just how brilliantly Hofmann had transcended the literalness of Mitchell’s sloppy and supposedly “expressive” brushwork. His painting had integrated all of that into real abstract content, which pretty much completely fills the canvas. Mitchell doesn’t have half enough content in the first place to sustain a picture this big, so a great deal of it is left blank. Blank is blank is blank, and there’s a lot of it about in abstract art.
As a general criticism of the show, I would have liked to have seen a much broader range of names, instead of such a focus on the big boys (and poor examples of token girls). I’d like to have seen more from the fringe players and people who contributed but didn’t become iconic. I’d like to have seen more stuff that I’ve never seen before. The first room is decidedly underwhelming in its introductory assembly of early works. There are surely better early examples.
The narrow predictability of Anfam’s narrative is particularly telling in his selection of the sculpture, where (ignoring Newman’s idiotic verticals and the boring black Nevelson wardrobe – pity Caro couldn’t ignore this idea of presenting stuff in boxes!) we get only Smith, Smith and yet more Smith. I would love to have seen some other American sculptors from this period, ones that we NEVER see. How about Seymour Lipton, Richard Stankiewicz, Ibram Lassaw, Theodore Roszak, Herbert Ferber or even Frederick Kiesler, most of whom are declared, or considered to be, Ab-Ex sculptors? It could have been a really interesting show had we got lots of different stuff we’ve never seen here, instead of so many familiar Smiths.
I can see why people, and particularly painters, like the Smiths, because being flat and 2-dimensional makes it completely undemanding as sculpture; you can get it all at once, like a painting; one view of it suffices, job done, and no hard work necessary. Plus, the earlier works here have all the trickery and beauty of Smith’s seductive metalworking techniques, clear and simple pleasures that are to be found in how they are made as objects, carefully and cleverly, by Smith the craftsman – that’s something that anyone can appreciate, without having to wrestle with issues of three-dimensionality or spatiality. Smith was very proficient with manipulating, shaping and joining metal, particularly early on. He does rather nifty little things like including delightful little 3-D “vignettes” in amongst all the flatness, as in “The Letter”. They serve to show that he could have made the whole work much more three-dimensional, had he wanted. On the whole, he didn’t want, and I suspect he was encouraged by certain critics to stay in the world of 2-D.That was maybe Smith’s route out of the tweeness and model-making aspects of some of the early work. Flatness may have been seen by Smith and others as a radical and modernist move away from conventional 3-D “organic” modelling etc., but the work ends up overwhelmingly and persistently disappointing because of the flatness, culminating in the really dreadful late stainless steel work. I think all the work in the courtyard, and most inside, is poor. “Blackburn” and “Star Cage” are probably the best of them indoors, as they do at least attempt to pull themselves about a bit spatially, and so manage to get out of the “picture plane”. Crazy idea, to have a picture plane in sculpture. It makes some of them into objects that are not really sculpture at all – pictographic “openwork screens” perhaps? The fact that you see through them does NOT make them spatial!
My guess is that a lot of the flatness is down to Smith making things laid out flat on the floor (as he is shown doing in some photos), tack-welding them together and then standing them up – perhaps then adding a few more 3-D flourishes (though sometimes not even this). But this methodology does not make sense in the world of real sculpture, and its relative ease of working has proved a poor example to many sculptors, notably including Caro, who I’m sure took Smith’s example as the green light to make lots of equally flat, or frontal, or pictorial works. Smith’s oeuvre, because of its superficial attractions, set a bad precedent for abstract sculpture, which persists even now, the flatness being seen by some as positively liberating for sculpture. That’s the opposite of the truth; it’s a very restrictive practice, and his work is a precedent that ought to be rejected as deeply flawed. We could have really benefitted from this show if a much broader range of early abstract sculpture had been included, of a kind that did not follow the Gonzalez/Smith/Caro flat/frontal/pictorial linear historical narrative that is so relentlessly pushed by most commentators on abstract sculpture, and is so unthinkingly repeated here.
It would have been good to see examples of work by some of those sculptors I have listed above (all of whom you can Google, with a few examples below), work that at the very least shows fewer signs in reproduction of compromising its three-dimensionality. Whether in the end any of it would stand up to a real sculptural critique better than the Smiths do is hard to say, but we could at least have had some enjoyment seeing something different and making our own minds up, rather than being fed the usual dumb presumptions about Smith’s supremacy. He so plainly has severe shortcomings as a sculptor.
Some Quotes from the reviews:
Mark Hudson, The Telegraph, 21st Sept. 2016
“When British artists saw the first London exhibitions of American abstract painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in the late Fifties, they were astonished by the improvisatory freedom of their works, in which paint appeared to have been hurled on to the canvas without any preconceived ideas, and by the sheer size of the paintings. To artists raised in austerity Britain, the idea that you could do a painting 20ft-wide was a revelation.”
“Rothko gets the central rotunda for six of his sonorous, saturated-colour field paintings, while Barnett Newman is perhaps even better served with his sculpture Here I (to Marcia), a towering strip of bronze, standing in front of three of his majestically sombre blue paintings, as though it’s been torn out of the painting to become something tangible and actual. At the end of the show, a large room is devoted to the San Francisco painter Clyfford Still, who may yet emerge as the surprise hero of the exhibition.”
Laura Cumming, The Observer, 25th Sept. 2016
“Rothko, along with his colleagues Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, is responsible for the abiding utterance of abstract expressionism. “The subject is crucial, and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” This subject matter – painted big and painted simple, or so they claimed – was as much about the human condition as any figurative self-portrait. That some of their colleagues might be more interested in landscape, colour or – God forbid – naked women, is only one of the innumerable ways in which this statement fails to unite conceivably the most disparate of all art revolutions. And so it is with this show.”
“This is the advanced art of America in the 1940 and 50s – unbound, free of illusion, definition, the constraints of the canvas, the bonds of earth, even, if you listen to the esoteric utterances of Newman or Rothko. Rothko can take care of himself, and indeed gets a quasi-chapel of his own in the RA rotunda. But Newman is persistently hampered. His art asks you to look at paintings in new ways, literally in the case of a soaring monument such as Ulysses, rearing high on the wall above you with its oceanic colours and its fine, bright zip dividing light from darkness, or land from sea. Any sense of infinity is compromised by the paintings crowding around it. And there is Reinhardt on the opposite wall, his geometric abstracts nearly subliminal in their subtlety of tone, their surfaces so delicate and pensive. Art isn’t a contest; Reinhardt should not knock Newman off the wall.”
“…any selection that includes a severe wooden construction by Louise Nevelson, parked like a bookcase against the wall, and one of Guston’s late, great cartoon-like tragicomedies is not just tendentious but counterintuitive, stretching in too many directions. Some might argue that it is good to see this wider period context, and many more of the lesser works too. But I can’t agree: I would have preferred the pure rush of exhilaration that comes with the greatest abstract expressionism.”
Matthew Collings, Evening Standard, 20th Sept. 2016
“Oh dear, this is a ropey show. It ought to bust the five-star limit — the artists in it are so high achieving. But it’s a mess. The catalogue has nothing to say. If it did it would answer basic questions. Abstract Expressionism is a known entity and has been for nearly 80 years. For many of us the knowing is from a distance. We have fundamental curiosity but we don’t want to make fools of ourselves. So we don’t ask those questions out loud. What is an abstract? What is expressionism?
Pollock’s drips, de Kooning’s gestures, Kline’s starker larger gestures, Newman’s straight lines, Rothko’s glowing fuzzy-edged banks of coloured rectangles, Still’s jagged contours and rich impacted palette-knifed surfaces, Guston’s murky clouds: why did the artists require a logo-like abstract style so each of them could be identified, and why did they paint like they had all the paint in the world and canvas was being given away by the hundreds of yards? Why large-scale, why splashes? “
“A room devoted to de Kooning is very strong. The delicious hit of a wholly abstract red and white painting from 1950, entitled Composition, is repeated at the same high level in other works by de Kooning in the same space. They all do much the same thing as Composition — an explosive approach to a format that’s basically a geometric grid — but manage to have completely different moods. His Fifties Woman series, like joke sex totems, are funny and silly, his Forties pure abstracts are subtly marvellous; his Sixties high-colour huge brushstroke abstracts are giddy.
After the de Kooning high point, where the show threatens to gel into something impressive, it sadly resumes its bumpy up and down motion. Rooms of Rothkos, Stills and Klines are effective, with only a few duds. There are beautiful sculptures by David Smith, none of which are shown with any dignity, and seem scattered about the exhibition like pot plants. A room of paintings by Barnett Newman, the philosophical thinker who reduced Abstract Expressionism’s expansive looseness to large areas of flatness and single narrow divisions, which can be exhilarating when displayed with an eye, pulls itself apart because of inappropriate matching, as if whoever arranged it disliked him.
A last room is devoted to Late Work, which should be a straightforward category. However, there’s no particular sense to the mix. A painting by Hans Hofmann is in the same sensual style he’d been doing for decades. Two splendid de Koonings aren’t late: he was still working 15 years on, and by then did have a distinctive late style. “
Adrian Searle, The Guardian, and 21st Sept 2016
“I wanted to be blown away, and to reconnect with a kind of painting that once had me in its thrall, and whose traces and impulses continue to be felt into the 21st century. I wanted to see it in some new and instructive way, but I didn’t.”
“From Gorky’s querulous biomorphs to one of Rothko’s very late grey and black images of emptiness and closure, I struggled. Overloaded, frequently puzzling and erratic, this is an exhibition whose pleasures – and there are many – come at a price. For all its key works, and also because of them, it often flattens out signal achievements, with deadening juxtapositions and clunky sightlines. While the biggest names get rooms to themselves, others fight it out in thematic displays that deaden individual works and achievements.”
“Abstract expressionism came with a lot of critical as well as artistic bullshit, much of which Ad Reinhardt gleefully lampooned in his coruscating cartoons and statements. Reinhardt, whose paintings were close-toned and emphatically mute and inexpressive, was a sort of antidote to much of Ab Ex’s tub-thumping. He should have had a room of his own. One constant throughout the exhibition is the presence of sculptor David Smith, as if his sculptures give it spine and continuity. Smith is everywhere. Many of his smaller sculptures are essentially pictorial, and need silhouetting. Their curves and angles snag on the paintings beyond.”
“With passing acknowledgements to Hans Hoffman (two works), a tally of the show gives us 15 Rothkos, 18 De Koonings, 13 works by David Smith and 12 paintings by Clyfford Still, who also gets a room to himself. Pollock said of Still that he “makes the rest of us look academic”. Still certainly made everyone else look like pygmies, with his oversized, riven scarps of claggy, craggy paint, with their fiddly, jagged interlocking fissures. We have probably never seen so many together as here, as the Clyfford Still Museum rarely lends works from its fastness in Denver, Colorado, where Anfam is senior consulting curator. Having so many Still paintings together may be a coup, but they cancel one another out.”