Think Big. Think Abstract Expressionism at the RA

Go Big. Go Bold. Clyfford Still’s paintings at the RA


The RA has pulled all the stops out this Autumn with its exhibition of Abstract Expressionism. And it can’t help but impress.

If you’re considering going to see this I would advise you, as the title of this post suggests, to think big. Not only is the exhibition huge, but the pieces are also rather large and the ideas behind the artworks, pretty deep.

I have to say I was a little apprehensive going to see this exhibition. With my own personal preference being for artists who have been dead for 500 years, this collection of art which dates from the 50s, 60s and 70s was a little intimidating

But, armed with my handy audio guide (which is f.r.e.e. For everyone.) I stepped into this unknown land of Abstract Expressionism.

You may remember, dear devoted reader, my article on Modern vs. Contemporary art? If not, no worries you can have a little catch up, but I mention it because the artworks in this exhibition belong generally in that strange, grey area that falls between, and overlaps with, what is considered as ‘Modern’ and ‘Contemporary’ in the Art World.

According to the RA, Abstract Expressionism encompasses and challenges the following themes:



Relationship with the viewer

The artist’s energy and expression (most important)

Each room is devoted to a single artist which helps you get a sense of his or her work, with the exception of David Smith’s sculptures which are threaded throughout the exhibition and welcome you in the courtyard.

To draw on Forrest Gump’s analogy of life, this exhibition is truly like a box of chocolates. In much the same way that you might not like the raspberry twirl or toffee chew, you may not enjoy every room, and that’s totally fine. The artists are very distinctive from one another and this means that each room launches you into yet another interpretation of the label Abstract Expressionism. This can become a little exhausting as it invites you to really look into what each artist was trying to achieve or express or experiment with.

The Rothko room

What struck me about an exhibition of this type is that it encouraged visitors to talk and discuss the works with each other. The rooms were full of the babble of visitors’ musings on what was hanging on the wall, some rooms louder than others.

In the Rothko room, for example, there was an eerie hush as visitors let the colours seep into their minds. The room was round, unlike the rest of those in the exhibition, and the lighting was low to allow the fuzzy, feathery blocks of colours to work their magic. Consequently, there is a cloud-like calm in the room and an almost subsonic buzz. As I stood in front of some yellow and blue concoction, I overheard another visitor say to his friend:


“On a direct, subconscious level, I find these paintings [by Rothko] really appealing. But I don’t know why.”

I think this best describes this exhibition – the works may, or equally may not, appeal to you and you can’t quite put a finger on why. This is probably due to the actual nature of Abstract Expressionism.

We are not there to comment on how well this artist has rendered that sunset, or how they’ve depicted the streaming tears of that weeping mother. Instead, we partake in these paintings in a new, perhaps unfamiliar way.

The audio guide describes them as ‘Action Paintings’ – a term coined in the 1950s by American Art Critic Harold Rosenberg which generally means the act of painting is the true work of art. The sheer size of some of the canvases fill your field of vision as you stand in front of them. You are overwhelmed with the emotion and expression that the artist has captured, the marks they’ve made, the colours they’ve chosen.

The RA has managed to borrow two seminal works by one of the movement’s more well-known artists, Jackson Pollock, and have hung these opposite each other.

The first, Mural, is. Huge. Dynamic. Colourful. All-encompassing and all-consuming for the viewer. Stand close enough and you’ll be completely immersed (Baptist style) in the mesh of light, dark, strong and weak marks made by Pollock. You do, literally, need to come up for air. Your eyes can’t rest on any one point and your mind goes into double-time as it tries to comprehend what it is you are standing in front of.

Mural, painted for Peggy Guggenheim in 1943

Turn around and you’re hit with another Pollock, Blue Poles. This slightly smaller canvas has a little more you can hold on to (visually) within the ocean of paint. Eight bold, blue strokes pierce the composition which is primarily made up of yellow, white, blue and orange splatters of paint.

Both paintings present the energy and movement of the artist in one, particularly large, frame. This image comparison worked for me and I was captured by Murals’ giant twisting, swirling madness. But maybe, if you go, these won’t speak to you and they will become the Snickers or toffee chew of the Abstract Expressionism chocolate box. Given the range of 3 – 5 star reviews of this exhibition, it seems some were left with more toffee chews then they perhaps would have liked…

Blue Poles, 1952

But I think that is the beauty of this exhibition. If you go in with an open mind, you’re likely to find something to interest you in one room or another. I would strongly recommend the audio guide so that you have some context to each artist as you wander through the rooms and it gives your eyes a break from reading the labels as well as looking at the art.

Even if you don’t, it shouldn’t be a problem since these paintings appeal to the viewer on a basic, subconscious level and address what it means for artists to express themselves and the effect this has on the viewer.

In the final room, we are met with Joan Mitchell’s Salut Tom from 1979 – the latter end of the movement. It is a huge, bright, uplifting finish to this fascinating exhibition that encompasses all the main themes of Abstract Expressionism explored in the previous rooms.

An exhibition that is a breath of fresh air and visually fascinating. Well done RA, well done.

Joan Mitchell, Salut Tom, 1979

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