Review: Abstract Expressionism At The Royal Academy

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I have to make a confession: I’m entirely unmoved by art, at least in the painted variety, be it modernist or classical. That doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate it on an aesthetic level, or see the genius (or lack of) or disregard the power and importance of a piece. But I just don’t feel that overwhelming emotional connection that others do. I have no idea why, but there it is. I‘ve kinda known this for a while, but it finally hit home as a disappointing reality while gazing up at whopping huge Jackson Pollock pieces at the Royal Academy and wondering why I wasn’t having any more emotional reaction than thinking ‘look how much paint he used there, that’s pretty impressive’ or similarly constructive critiques. Similarly, much of the other work in this expansive (and expensive – we’ll come to that) exhibition only really thrilled me in the sense that it might make a nice LP cover or home decoration. And I actually love Pollock’s work. But seeing it in the flesh, as it were, meant nothing more to me than seeing a photo in a book. Clearly, I’m a philistine.

Or perhaps my lack of ohmygodisntthisjustamazingness in this instance came from the written introductions that came on the walls of each room, written in such hilariously high falutin’ style as to be the very height of pomposity. Someone, writing an introduction to this work for (I assume) the uninitiated, thought that phrases like “an openness evoking rarified, empyrean voids’ was the way to go. Seriously – what does gobbledegook like this actually tell anyone, other than the fact that they have been written a chin-stroking self-proclaimed intellectual, determined to proved how jolly clever he is? The effect, sadly, was to reduce the Reprobate team to giggles, and it’s hard to be overwhelmed by anything when you are sniggering.

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Certainly, this show is pretty thorough. Spread over twelve rooms and covering, as well as Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Willem de Koning, Mark Rothko (being an ignorant pig, I found Rothko’s work to be no more impressive than wallpaper), Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhart, Clyfford Still and the sculptures of David Smith (absolutely the highlight of the exhibition for me). The layout of the exhibition – or possibly more accurately, the gallery – didn’t provide a singular through-route, which might have been better. I wondered if arrows pointing out which room followed which – rather like a curated cheese board, in which the order in which one consumes the contents should be a planned, rather than random think – might have helped, but that’s probably me being ignorant again.

imagesAnyway, when viewed as a barbarian, the work was of varying appeal, the Pollock’s and some others being impressive for the sense of fury that is inherent in the work – Pollock might not have been throwing paint around randomly in the way that some have suggested (there’s an obvious creative control in his work) but this was hardly the work of a contented man. And yes, the thickness of the paint actually does matter here, showing a passionate fury that you don’t often come across in paintings.

Still, after wandering through the exhibition and exiting through the eye-wateringly expensive gift shop, I was left feeling slightly deflated, feeling that there should have been something more in all this, and that’s surely the opposite effect than that which a show like this is supposed to have. For 17 quid – a frankly outrageous price to charge for a sponsored exhibition in a gallery that soaks up arts funding while other, smaller places outside (and indeed, inside) London struggle to get any government money while bringing art to the masses for free – this didn’t feel like money well spend. Perhaps I should’ve shelled out another 30 notes for the accompanying book (or 90 quid for a Rothko print throw) so that I could understand it better.

DAVID FLINT

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