At the close of the Second World War, the Western art world pivoted from Europe to the United States. The great wave of artists influenced by the Russian and German revolutionary movements had crashed in the 1920s when socialist realism became only art style sanctioned by Moscow.
In New York a collection of ambitious young emerging artists was producing work that escaped the confines of representation and sought to interrogate the feelings and emotions of the age. Some were natives of the city, some were escaping the horrors engulfing Europe.
In this large survey exhibition the sheer vigour, energy and confidence of the work radiates from the walls. Room after room is dedicated to giants of the school — Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still.
The Second World War, the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb provoked many of these artists into a profound examination of the human condition. Rage and violence are evident in the work of artists such as de Kooning and Franz Kline; a search for sublime harmony and balance in artists such as Rothko, Still and Barnett Newman; a searching for order out of chaos in Pollock.
This is a rare opportunity to see so many Pollocks hung together in the same room. His largest canvas, Mural (1943), painted for the collector Peggy Guggenheim, contains his last traces of figuration within its tight swirls. It is hung opposite Blue Poles (1952), Pollock’s late masterpiece.
The paintings’ devastating intensity and monumental power combines the rhythmical layers of drips, splashes and spurts of paint that the artist is famous for with jagged pieces of glass. Throughout the room we can appreciate his different use of scale and material — surface, texture, type of pigment, enamel, aluminium paint, and objects such as pebbles — that are impossible to discern in reproduction.
The Rothko room is at the centre of the exhibition. Its low lighting adds to the spiritual aura of the work. His large canvasses with their elemental plains of colour evoke a psychological intensity. The balance and relationship between the colours, their proportions, gradation of tone, thickness and rough blending display a genuine humanity which encourages contemplation.
Much of the art in the exhibition exudes a deep nihilism. A number of the artists became dependent on alcohol and drugs; many suffered early deaths, sometimes by suicide.
Other artists represented include Clyfford Still. His giant canvasses, like jagged landscapes, convey a real drama between light and shade. There is one of Robert Motherwell’s more than 200 Elegies to the Spanish Republic that he painted over 40 years in commemoration of the Spanish Civil War.
De Kooning, a “gesturalist” whose physical actions are evident in this work, straddles abstraction and figuration. His Woman as Landscape, which he described as a “bitch goddess”, is a monstrous, deeply troubling image that recalls some of Picasso’s representations of women.
The New York school, with its muscular, physical nature, concern with violence, and the sheer scale of the work, is often seen as macho. Although there are relatively few women artists represented here, it is refreshing that the curators have included work by women, particularly Lee Krasner, whose paintings feature intermittently throughout the exhibition.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s many artists who became abstract expressionists, including Pollock, de Kooning, Krasner, Rothko, Gorky and Philip Guston, were supported by the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration. They were often influenced by left wing ideas.
But by the end of the war, with the rise of the US as a global power along with the start of the Cold War, their art was being bought and exhibited, often in international touring shows, by shadowy groups keen to promote the movement as exemplifying the great US values of individualism and freedom of expression.
Does this mean that the art should be viewed with suspicion? Absolutely not. But it does mean that there are different layers of meaning and interesting contradictions within Abstract Expressionism. Like all great art.