Abstract Expressionists and King Lear

What an extra-ordinary exhibition this is.  They say the paintings were born of the common experience of artists living in the 1940s. Many of the works in the exhibition reflect the darkness of those times, marred by two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, atomic bombs.  Out of this context, dark works emerged, later segueing into a contemplative movement characterised by freedom of expression.

The very same day I went to see the RSC’s production of King Lear with Anthony Sher in the lead role, and it resonated with the dark preoccupations of the AbEx’s.  In our times, just as in King Lear’s and the AbEx’s, anxieties are focussed on isolation, dementia, war and terror, and the miseries of millions of displaced and enslaved people.But back to the paintings themselves, and thoughts of what they might mean for my own practise.



The exhibition is arranged in 12 rooms, each one devoted either to a single artist, or a small group of artists whose work had something in common.

Arshile Gorky – an artist I haven’t looked at before, I found the drawing quality of his paintings, and his use of colour very appealing. Water of the Flowery Mill (1944, oil on canvas, 107×124) is an abstract, landscape inspired painting. I can interpret elements from the landscape – flowers, sky, grass etc – but they’re disguised well.   It’s bright, warm colours appeal to the senses, make me feel warm and happy. It has a complex, strong design of light and dark areas; of large shapes around the edges and small shapes drawing the eye to the centre; together with drawn marks.  I also liked Gorky’s works on paper with their fine graphite marks mixed with broad swathes of roughly applied colourful crayon. My overall impression of his work is playful (think scribble, graffiti), colourful, with a strong element of drawing.

Jackson Pollock was an artist I looked at in Painting 1, and I was excited to see his work in the flesh here, especially one I’d studied and adopted in my own work at the time.  I’d never come across the monumentally scaled Blue Poles (1952, enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 212×489 cm) before.  The title is interesting – it was called simply “Number 11, 1952” originally, and I agree with others the name “Blue Poles” rather distracts from the whole.

In a discussion of the work on http://nga.gov.au/International/Catalogue/Detail.cfm?IRN=36334&MnuID=2&GalID=1 the making of the painting is described as a long and exacting process.  It appears spontaneous but was not, it took time and planning.

Sam Francis is an artist I hadn’t come across before.  His huge paintings were represented here by the large grey canvas ‘Black Clouds’ and a couple of colourful canvases.  I particular liked Summer No 2 for it harmonious palette of blue, green and turquoise, with two thirds of the canvas left white.  This induced a feeling of peace and fresh air, maybe the reason for the artist’s choice of title.

By contrast the canvases of Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline in the next room were composed of large, simple, dramatic – you could say violent – black marks on a white ground.  Motherwell introduces a small amount of a third colour, burnt sienna or lemon yellow, which looked elegant and softened the overall effect.  Kline would use a projector to compose his paintings, enlarging and cropping an image until just a few abstract marks remained.

De Kooning canvases seemed to alternate between abstract and figurative, and his female figures are distorted, harsh, monstrous.  He used oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas in the works exhibited.  The treatment of the female in his work is sometimes described as misogynistic; he claimed they were not, but it’s hard to believe the artist saw anything attractive in his subject.

Barnett Newman‘s work in the next room was different from the others, in that his canvases (while still huge) were composed of neat vertical stripes or simple geometric areas, and not gestural abstractions.  His compositions and choice of colours (blues and reds, e.g. Ulysses) feel balanced and satisfying.  The canvases appear simple, but colours and edges are subtly modulated.

His paintings led as in a sudden shift of quality to those of Mark Rothko.  There are similarities – simple, geometric shapes and lines in harmonious colours on large canvases – but to my eye Rothko’s paintings are infinitely more subtle.  I felt I could sink into his canvases the longer I contemplated them – there seemed to be layers on layer of veils of colour hiding infinite depths.  Edges dissolved, colours wavered.  I was surprised at the palette on these Rothkos, being more familiar with his dark black and red works at the Tate; here were yellows and oranges, light, bright colours, but also one black on grey canvas.

Clifford Still‘s paintings like Newman’s are dominated by the vertical.  I identified in these large abstract zig-zag compositions a similarity to the landscape of my home; chasms, gorges, abysses, layer on layer of jagged edges separating receding tones; pine-forested planes receding into the distance.  The colours are flat and simplified.

Finally, I came to a vast four panel painting by Joan Mitchell, Salut Tom 4 and spent a while basking in the sunny yellows, greens, blues and whites of this abstract, expressive composition.


Abstract Expressionism isn’t characterised by one group of artists working together, using one style, technique or approach.  Rather it is a roundup term for those artists working (broadly) in the US between the world wars, whose paintings have in common a more or less abstract, expressive quality, and which are often made on a very large scale.  This definition allows for a wide variety in the works  on display in the exhibition.  Each artist stood more or less alone, there seemed to be little shared in common  by them as one sees in, for example the impressionists or cubists.


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