Abstract Expressionism @ RA

Abstract Expressionism was the first artistic movement that saw the centre of the art world move out of Paris and into New York City. The term, which is now largely associated with American artists like Jackson Pollock, was actually first used in a German magazine in 1919. Alfred Barr, the first director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was the first to use the term in the United States in 1929 when describing the work of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky and by 1946, Robert Coates had firmly applied the label to the contemporary American art of that era. The Royal Academy in London is now hosting the United Kingdom’s first major survey of the movement since 1959.

This arwork, that now falls under the umbrella of ‘abstract expressionism’, reflects the tumultuous era in which it was born. New York had become home to artists who had been driven out of Paris following the two world wars. The political atmosphere was bleak and the artistic reaction to this can now be seen adorning the Royal Academy walls. The paintings on display are an emotional response to an age of uncertainty and apprehension. Canvases had ceased to become a domain for representing the beautiful but instead became the backdrop on which to reveal inner feelings and reactions in the form of loud emotive marks – or sometimes – even soft brushstrokes too.

The artists on display in the Royal Academy are separated individually gallery by gallery. The exhibition begins with the work of Armenian-American artist Arshile Gorky. This is an interesting choice as it is the only artist whose work the curators have chosen to show in a presentation of both what came before he adopted an ‘abstract expressionist style’, as well as the style he is famous for. In this way we are shown early figurative paintings as well as the passionate non-representational work that most people will know Gorky for. The decision to show Gorky’s early work, sets the scene nicely for the exhibition, giving the viewer a sense of what came before one of the art world’s most celebrated movements.

Also on display are the passionate gestures of Jackson Pollack and the striking brushstrokes of Willem de Kooning. Each gallery displays an informative survey of each artist’s work and there is not one part of the display that disappoints. Mark Rothko’s section is undoubtedly one of the most memorable, being staged in the Royal Academy rotunda – it is a true display of beauty. The whole show is exceptionally powerful – the artwork is deeply emotional and colourful – I challenge anyone to visit and leave feeling ambivalent.

The Royal Academy exhibition encompasses an awe-inspiring 136 artworks that span four decades. It is an impressive show that probably warrants a second or maybe even a third visit. Being the first British show of the movement in over 60 years, it is not something that I would recommend anyone to miss.

Abstract Expressionism is on display at Royal Academy until 2 January 2017

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and also writes for After Nyne, Ibraaz and Reorient.

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