‘Interior’, Mark Rothko
Abstraction Expressionism as a term was coined by Robert Coates in 1946 to denote a new style of art, most prevalent in America. It refers to both the visual qualities of European abstraction and the emotional ones of German Expressionism. The breadth of this field is explored in the RA show where representational works such as Mark Rothko’s ‘Interior’ (1936) become more gestural through the practice of Jackson Pollock before evolving into geometrical planes with Barnett Newman.
Despite the volume of works in the exhibition the scale of many of the pieces remains as confrontational as when created; their monumental nature enabling them to be simultaneously animated, intense and spontaneous. The more stripped back works however, where one field of colour dictates the painting also borders the sublime. These contrasting ideals ensures that the viewer is promoted to having a more active role, what the work denotes or wants to instil not as apparent as in a more representational work.
Abstract Expressionist painting has been previously split into two categories, action and colour field. This definition however does not take into account pieces which transcend this border; dynamic and physical works that are dictated by colour. Even the most ‘flat’ works have movement instilled as the production is often apparent and the tones layered. Rothko proposes that in the works ‘subject is crucial’, demonstrative of the human condition as much as any portrait. The subject however is not always apparent, the way one is encouraged to react with the work more important than what it contains.
‘Ulysses’, Barnett Newman
Similar works were often paired however the close proximity between works in some rooms meant it was hard to separate out an individual painting without seeing the colour or lines reflected in opposing works. Though in some instances this worked in others the clarity of form was lost. This was particularly apparent in Barnett Newman’s works ‘Ulysses’ (1952) and ‘Midnight Blue’ (1970) where any sense of infinity was lost through the nearness of the pieces. Colour is separated by ‘zips’, thin vertical lines which variegate the colour field and define the spatial structure of the painting; simultaneously splitting and drawing together the composition. With the works positioned so closely however these zips referenced each other rather than creating a plane or establishing a focal zone within the individual work.
‘Midnight Blue’, Barnett Newman
David Anfam, who helped to curate the show, proposes that Abstract Expressionism is not so much a movement but a phenomenon; the breadth of practices a response to a particular period rather than adherence to one style. This can be seen with Clyfford Still’s work, which aesthetically is far removed from other practices. Colour is employed to denote spatiality, the vast flaking areas of paint invoking a natural grandness, reminiscent of grand canyons, craggy planes or tempests. They appear to resonate with the uncontrollable forces of the natural world whilst retaining a layered artificiality which renders some solely as layers of colour.
Rothko on the other hand takes a more stripped back approach, using often singular colours to denote the breadth and ‘tragedy’ of human emotions. Rothko, Still and Newman however have all at some time or other been seen to be searching for and trying to encapsulate the sublime. The sublime as a quality denotes greatness whether in a physical, moral, aesthetic or intellectual form, beyond imitation or calculation and measurement. Rothko often referred to his paintings as facades, enabling them to denote both the figure, landscape and emotions. This definition only goes to enhance their enigmatic hypnotism so that they simultaneously conceal and reveal. The fading chromatic edges , seen in ‘No.15’ (1957), which have a sense of immediacy and reticence are a prime example of this, referring to the unseen whilst framing the image. This play between the seen and unseen is active throughout the exhibition, the layered colours and shapes prompting the view to interact with the works more closely.
‘No.15’, Mark Rothko