#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?).

I had been looking forward to the big horizontal blue picture from Denver, since it looks impressive on screen on the web, but it too was far too big for its pictorial content, and too tall, overreaching itself to impress, the acres of knifed and brushed leatherette blue to left and right clumsily applied by an artist so driven by a desire for implacable surfaces that he has lost touch, if he ever had any. The “matiere” is dead-handed. The large cream and beige/ochre picture which had made a big impression on me when I first saw it at the Gulbenkian Exhibition at the Tate in 1964, failed to ignite as colour, and though it is by no means the dullest Still in this show, it’s drawn profiles and central vertical division seem inhibited, niggling where once they seemed expansive and spatially alive. And to evoke Monet in this context is just unpardonable. Still comes nowhere near to the riches of Monet’s aristocratic orchestration of colour, nor the electricity of his infinitely varied brush drawing.

The yellow and red picture with its fuzzy edged spikes, also from Denver, perhaps a response to developments in Rothko’s contemporaneous works, (for they were all in and out of one another’s pockets), another work which looked promising on the screen, is just a garish bad idea, courting a disastrous, corny figuration.

Motherwell is cruelly under-represented, and those pictures that are there are mediocre examples. His large Spanish Elegy picture, like virtually all his later works when painted in acrylic, is dead and formulaic, manufactured, totally without the impulsive dandyish risk-taking, or the achieved effect of such, which characterised his earlier work in oils.

Newman is a colossally over-rated painter. Once again he fails to spark any interest in this viewer. The Tate’s pictures included here, despite their familiarity, have some qualities, since they appear to have been painted towards, rather than conceived and executed, with adjustments of colour to surface, but the others, Ulysses, Profile of Light? and Midnight Blue, are like the later Stills and Motherwells, ideographic, formulaic, conceptually driven, sensuously absent, and relying on vertical height to impress.

Almost all of the pictures in the later rooms are hung too high, which increases the sense of portentous straining for effect (on the part of the curators no less).

Gottlieb is also cruelly treated. Apart from an early pictograph, the one example of his Bursts is a real dud, which only someone utterly insensitive to the qualities that Gottlieb can evince, at his best, could have chosen to represent this artist. Surrounded by acres of unpainted canvas, a red haloed orb floats, or rather, just exists above a token jagged edged puddle in black – black is everywhere with these artists, but a dead-hand black, oppressive and depressing, without sensuous justification or necessity through contrast, expressing what?, one is continually obliged to ask.

Kline, for instance, is simply a very bad painter, striving manfully to rival the others with big overblown gestures, the caricatural “action” painter. Anfam seems to like him, since he devotes a whole room to his catastrophes and influences, while Gottlieb, an infinitely more sensitive and varied painter, is all but absent.

De Kooning, a painter of far greater range than Kline (or Still, for that matter) is well represented. His most felicitous and to my mind his best work is the narrow horizontal (about 2 feet by 6 feet), where his whiplash line and buttery-smooth creams combine with flashes of brighter tones in flying angel figures. No one tried harder than de Kooning over a life-span to avoid the pitfalls of grandiloquence and empty rhetoric. His “Woman” pictures are a specialised taste for other eyes than mine, but they were enormously influential on a whole generation of painters unconvinced by “abstraction”, and in search of “humanist content”. The Parkway “landscapes” of the early 60’s, (of which two are represented at the R.A.), also very influential in the 60’s, are suave and sweeping, but their sideways streaking broad-brush gestures cut against the spatial tendency of their high-keyed pastel colour. Here one would have liked to have seen a comparison of, say, A Tree in Naples, 1960, or Untitled 1961 (exhibited) with one of Hofmann’s contemporaneous works, Summer Nights Bliss, for instance, the ones without blocks, in which the colour is far stronger and asserts its presence with rather less of the naturalistic overtones hinted at in the De Koonings (though not entirely absent there too). They were clearly in direct competition at this time, (Hofmann’s Oceanic, 1958 being the probable precursor), but Anfam has disgracefully side-lined Hofmann almost entirely. His Idolatress 1944 is aptly compared with Pollock’s Male and Female 1943, in the first room, since it was Pollock’s 1943 show at Peggy Guggenheim’s that tilted Hofmann away from still life and towards biomorphic abstraction.

Pollock’s Mural ,1943, is alone worth the price of admission. Also hung too high, and in one of the rooms where the lighting is unconscionably dimmed, this somehow serves to play up aspects of this great picture which were not apparent when it is shown in normal daylight, which tends to show up a certain hasty coarseness in its handling. But this absense of crimble-crumble is amply outweighed by the breadth and daring with which the whole image is conjoured in an outrageously Dionysian rhythm, (not however painted in one continuous, frenzied burst, as myth would have it). The gloomy installation accentuates the tonal contrasts in the colour, but also that what colour there is serves the image well; indeed these tonal and colour sequences are the most subtle aspects of the picture and counterbalance the violence of the drawn rhythms, or rather the achieved violence of the imagery. It is the balance of released energy and control which heralds Pollock’s mature identity as a painter, a tour de force which none of the others ever managed, and which Pollock himself struggled to repeat.

There could scarcely be a more consciously conceived late-modernist tour de force, which replays two key episodes of early modernism, the primitivistic urges of the proto-cubist Picasso, and an envisioned primordial scene of violence enacted as a hieratic rhythmic dance, (a la Rite of Spring), even though the parade of figures themselves may be angular and unrhythmic. The Russian surrealist John Graham was an important catalyst and conduit for such a confluence of ideas.

In Letter From New York I said that I momentarily and heretically preferred Pollock’s One to Matisse’s Bathers By a River – perhaps a more revealing confrontation would have been the Matisse with Mural 1943. Though Pollock is channeling Picasso at his most fearsome, the polarity with Matisse’s Apollonian calm would be instructive.

For whatever reason the curators have failed to secure  other works of Pollock of high quality. The smaller pictures are an indifferent group (Male and Female excepted) — though Blue Poles is not as bad as I expected it to be (given the conditions under which it was painted). The last major work that Pollock achieved would appear to be Convergence, 1952, (not exhibited) (Albright-Knox Gallery.) Why bring  Blue Poles all the way from Canberra, yet leave behind Hofmann’s great Pre-Dawn, 1960, from the same gallery? After all, Hofmann is the painter about whose work the term “Abstract Expressionist” was first applied.

There is no doubt in my mind that Rothko is a great painter, despite the doubts I have raised elsewhere. In daylight the overworked surfaces of some of the zones can bring the picture down a notch, as light catches the shine and brings the surface of these zones into a reality at odds with the blurring opticality of the surrounds which Rothko seems to desire for the whole image. In the gloomy central hexagonal room at the R.A., they fare better, but the very large green and blue picture ( slightly more horizontal than square) might raise such doubts, if one could really see it.

But with Rothko these finely tuned and nuanced surface issues are raised to a  knife-edged pitch, success or failure, not shared or equalled by any of the other painters, save Gorky, who is well represented by the watercolour-like period of the late 40’s, but with Still Life on a Table 1936-37, painted under direct influence from Picasso’s Painter and Model, 1928, then at MOMA, N.Y., Gorky has studied and surpassed Picasso’s scumbled  and furry edged black line cloisonné drawing and sparkling white impasto. It is one of the finest paintings in this show. After close scrutiny of Gorky’s subtle craftsmanship, everyone but Rothko looks crude, hurried, and summary. Without close attention to qualities of facture and surface resonance, however bold an idea, paintings will diminish in impact over time.

Even Joan Mitchell falls prey to the trend for distending a minimal idea over an excessively large acreage of canvas, “referencing Cezanne and Monet’s enveloping Nympheas” according to Anfam’s blurb. If ever there was an example of ” how art writing gets (or deserves) its bad name” it is Anfam’s catalogue introduction.

Mitchell’s Salut Tom is perhaps the only picture in the show to essay naturalistic light and colour, hazardous and potentially inimical in the context of a putative abstraction. Many have tried to follow in Monet’s footsteps, but all have fallen flat. There is yet another borderline for abstraction here. Though we may all admire Monet, it seems that his methods of evoking natural light are incompatible with a true abstraction. (Matisse is a more fruitful exemplar). Does Mitchell care? Perhaps not but this vapid work does her no favours. And why is Grace Hartigan totally absent?

The Hofmann, In Sober Ecstasy, 1965, which Anfam has squeezed into a corner barely big enough to contain it, and which is inappropriately encased within a dark brown frame with gold trim, just stays on the right side of naturalistic colour. Hofmann can play upon the whole keyboard from hard abstraction to this, a picture I described in 1988 as follows: ” the mauve and Vandyke brown, or is it sepia, ‘blocks’ are absolutely right in their colour mood, matching the curious poetry of the ‘landscape’, but very surprising and odd at the same time, especially the brown; one somehow wants it to be more purplish, less unattractive; it is like a slab of liquorice, or Lebanese hashish (I’m guessing here) most disturbingly specific as a texture compared to the rest of the picture, yet hard to define in any terms other those in which one encounters it, in this particular painting… Or perhaps the picture just doesn’t work. It is poised so precariously…” In this disadvantageously cramped setting it seemed over compact, not as expansive as I remembered it, but its classic containment packs a hidden punch nonetheless. The 1976 de Kooning, Untitled V, on the opposite wall to the right, is a bolder and more literally expansive picture, but it’s shiny, slippery, fat mannerist brushstrokes count against it.

Finally, David Smith’s sculptures in the forecourt, raised on plinths so that we are looking up at them, come over very badly indeed. Their enclosure by the surrounding unsympathetic architecture constantly cuts across their profiles and openings, making what spatial implication they may have very hard to see. How different from the flattering snow-scenes at Bolton Landing.  The tall stainless steel piece in flat plate and angle was not helped by a strong wind which caused it to rock and judder precariously, emphasising its fragility as a structure and did little to enhance it as a sculpture either. However there was one stand-out Smith indoors – Blackburn, Song of an Irish Blacksmith which portrayed all that is best in Smith as an artist.

David Smith, "Blackburn, Song of an Irish Blacksmith", 1950

David Smith, “Blackburn, Song of an Irish Blacksmith”, 1950

It seems clear to me now that though Greenberg is the only one to talk sense about these painters, the positive spin he put on Still and Newman in particular, about a new kind of unity based on close-toned fields of darkish colour, (I don’t have any of his writing to hand in London), simply doesn’t hold up in the light of contemporary day. I would scarcely rate Still as a colourist at all. And his unity, if there is such, is achieved at a very high price. Newman seems to follow him, but with scarcely a shred of talent, and absolutely full of pretentious extra-pictorial baggage, which the gullible have been using ever since in his advocacy. I saw his Tate retrospective many years ago, and only even half liked his early 1940’s work. A blind spot on my part? I don’t think so.


  1. I think that DeKooning hermeneutically acknowledged his indebtedness to cubism in the women paintings.He was looking backward as well as forward.That is his strength and makes for a richer viewing experience. Still, Kline and Newman don’t look back .They isolate and reduce certain aspects of the painting experience without referencing the origins. Maybe that makes them more ascetic but for that reason forward looking toward minimalism and color field painting.


  2. As regards the painting, I don’t know what we’ve been arguing about – you’re not far off being as critical as I am with some of this stuff. OK, so you like Rothko, Gorky and Gottlieb a bit more than I do, but that’s about it. I concur with all you say about Still and Newman especially.

    But I keep coming back to Smith, as you knew I would, because I think getting him right is really important for sculpture now, and we’ve got him wrong for such a long time. If “Blackburn” portrays “all that is best in Smith as an artist”, then I don’t think it gets you very far, because although I might agree it is amongst his best works here, it’s really not that good. What about the way it does not even start to consider how to stand in the world, but is weightlessly and magically stuck up on a stick? That kind of thing is such a poor example, which continues even now. I saw some new sculpture the other day (mentioning no names) that did exactly the same thing. In fact there is not a single Smith in the whole show that addresses this crucial problem for abstract sculpture.

    And do you really still think that these loopy drawings in steel are tensioned? How can they be, without taking into account how they stand in the world? I think the whole work is pretty flaccid, unspatial and unphysical. It comes and goes as you walk around it. And not really very abstract at all…sorry! Come on Alan, admit it.


  3. I’m not going to get into another wrangle with you. If you were able to read and take in without prejudice the things I have said about these painters in Letter From New York, for instance and other previous pieces, Put Up,or Shut Up on the Hofmann picture Pompeii when it entered the Tate in 1987? you would see that there was little basis for an argument in the first place. Your comment that it was all new to you in 1988 says it all. Where were you in the 70s and 80s? And as to Smith, you only have to look at the examples you’ve just put up of his contemporary American sculptors to see why Smith was correctly seen as superior, clearer, master of his craft in the black smithing years, and for his time the best sculptor around, and it is through his influence on Caro that all of you, from Tim Scott onwards have wanted to take sculpture in steel forward. Looking back now it is easy to criticise, but looking around for an alternative parentage is itself a tribute to the influence you have all felt, directly or indirectly. Why did Kathy Gili for instance bother to go all,the way to Bolton Landing to see Smith’s work if she did not regard him as important for her? See my comments on Smith in the Letter From New York. I have been saying for a long time tht Smith is not a monumental sculptor and that the stainless steel Cubis are a disaster. So where’s the argument? Tensility is a property of Australia in particular, and is raised as a question for sculpture firstly by Tucker , and then by me in Carbon, Diamond, Tate catalogue, where I compare Australia unfavourably with a Persian bronze animal handle to a vessel. It is an imaginative idea, capable of development, hinted at in these works. Use your imagination instead of carping.


    1. Oh well, if “tensility” is an imaginative idea, and not down to stretching bits of steel, I’m all for it. You’ll have noticed I used it in relation to the Hofmann I like so much.

      As for Smith’s contemporaries, I’d like to make my own mind up after seeing some of them for real. Of course Smith looks clearer in photograph – flat against the sky of Bolton Landings! In sculpture, that doesn’t prove anything, and nor does it mitigate the sheer disappointment of his flatness, even in “Australia” (which I have seen).


  4. On my first visit to New York in April 1972, at a meeting in Clement Greenberg’s Central Park West apartment, the issue of Gottlieb came up in conversation. Clem said that Gottlieb was pants presser to the Abstract Expressionists. (John McLean, who was also there remembers it as “Still says that Gottlieb is pants presser”) Either way, if Gottlieb is pants presser to the A.E.s then Newman must have ironed their ties. Clem also said, ” If you can’t see Gottlieb, you can’t see the 60’s! “. Just take one of Gottlieb’s orbs, and slide it down till it forms the centre of one of his splashes, and you have an early target by Kenneth Noland, also including the pants pressing. And of course Noland also tidied up other aspects of Newman , as Olitski tidied up Rothko. But we will have to wait for a thorough re-examination of the post-painterlies before we can judge the outcome of all that. One thing that this show has made excruciatingly obvious is that no conclusions about any work of art can be drawn from images of it on the screen. Only folly can come from that. It must stop.


  5. P.S. I have just been re-reading Put Up or Shut Up , from Artscribe No 29, June 1981, which is when Pompeii entered the Tate. Apart from a somewhat strident tone of aggression, and some “extravagant prose” on Pollock, for which I have apologised elsewhere, I am surprised how much my current reactions are anticipated in it. Recommended reading! That’s all folks!

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