Patrick Legant is an independent art advisor in London for 19th and 20th Century art as well as specializing in German & Austrian Expressionism. This essay is based upon the show Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, London (September, 24 2016 – January, 2 2017)
London saw its first major survey exhibition of the then relatively new phenomenon of Abstract Expressionist Art at the Tate (in collaboration with MoMA) in 1959. The show was titled “New American Painting.” Works by Clyfford Still and William De Kooning could have been seen in London already a year earlier in the small but significant show “Some Paintings from the E.J. Power Collection” at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art), curated by the pioneering and influential curator Lawrence Alloway. The show paved the way for the major Tate and MoMA collaboration in 1959—an absolutely new artistic territory for the British audience.
Due to the absence of American Expressionist Art exhibitions in the UK since, the newly opened show “Abstract Expressionism” in London causes again such a stir—possibly as much as it did in 1959. It is almost like a fresh discovery of this “ultimate American” 20th Century movement that finds its origin in German Expressionism and Surrealist art as well as in the notion of the Abstract developed and challenged by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso. This time, the esteemed Royal Academy of Arts in London has “taken on” the Americans—to tell the story and to re-introduce the British to the development of Abstract Expressionist Art.
Obviously the “stir” these days has a very different feel to what the public felt in the 1950s. Now we are looking at those “gestures” by Pollock and “expressions” by Still and Mark Rothko as the “Old Masters” of the movement that dominated the “new look” after the horrendous experiences during World War II. Helped by such influential critics, such as Clement Greenberg, championing the Abstract Expressionists and promoting them, they were the heralds of the post-war, new and free Western world. Even the CIA recognised the power of the bold and free quality of the works by the American abstract expressionists as a tool in their Cold War battle. As the journalist Frances Stonor
Saunders recounted in the Independent in regards to the 1959 Tate show:
In 1958 the touring exhibition “The New American Painting”, including works by
Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell and others, was on show in Paris. The Tate Gallery was keen to have it next, but could not afford to bring it over. Late in the day, an American millionaire and art lover, Julius Fleischmann, stepped in with the cash and the show was brought to London. The money that Fleischmann provided, however, was not his but the CIA’s. It came through a body called the Farfield Foundation, of which Fleischmann was president, but far from being a millionaire’s charitable arm, the foundation was a secret conduit for CIA funds.
So, unknown to the Tate, the public or the artists, the exhibition was transferred to London at American taxpayers’ expense to serve subtle Cold War propaganda purposes.
(“Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’” by Frances Stonor Saunders in Independent, 21 Oct 1995)
With a different purpose this time, the selection of works in the 2016 London show is very strong and includes some exceptionally rare loans. The lay-out of the exhibition develops an axis that stretches from Gorky to Pollock to Rothko to Still—and when entering the space entirely dedicated to Still’s enormous and visually impactful canvases, it feels like having reached the peak of the Abstract Expressionist experience. As Pollock once said: “Still makes the rest of us look academic.” While Kandinsky might have been the godfather of the movement, Still definitely was its American father.
The exhibition starts with works by Arshile Gorky and reminds the viewer of the European links and immigrant artists that started the new movement. It then continues with works by Franz Kline, William de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, to name only a few. The exhibition allows an almost complete overview and hints at the battle of the new American versus the old European Modernism developed before World War II. Part of the battle was also about the creation of a truly American avant-garde art—and Still and Pollock stand here at the forefront as the first so-called “quintessential American” artists.
From the early paintings to the late works, the exhibition is a tremendous visual survey of the movement and allows the rediscovery and re-appreciation of American art of the 20th Century.
The opening of a quintessential American art show at a quintessential British institution such as the Royal Academy in London appears to be rather timely; especially after the Brexit referendum vote and the now following daily debates about what Brexit means and what “being British” is suppose to mean in a European as well as global context. When the Abstract Expressionists were shown in London in 1959, they had impact because of, and were part of, a wider strategy to advocate for the free world through art.
Today, the works represent the “Old Masters” of a particular type of globalism where the world seemed to be converging on a shared culture of the new. The young of the digital generation have already embraced that global vision which has a clear resonance in the show.
It is the generation that saw the 1959 show and their children who might need these works as a reminder of the spirit of freedom and open-mindedness that was powerfully expressed by those Abstract Expressionists already more than 60 years ago.