Abstract Expressionists at the Royal Academy of Arts

Rebecca Vera-Martinez

Imagine an average 13-year-old boy who is a die hard fan of superhero movies. He enjoyed the first Iron Man in 2008. He loved watching the adventures of Thor in 2011. During the same year he also watched Captain America and was so obsessed with the film he covered all his room with Cap’s posters. How do you think this boy would feel while going to the cinema to watch Avengers Assemble, the movie where all of his favourite characters would appear together at the same time?

I know exactly how he would feel. Because I felt the same way while entering the Abstract Expressionism exhibition last Monday. Seeing Jackson Pollock’s, Willem de Kooning’s, and Mark Rothko’s art under one roof is as good as seeing Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America on one screen.

Superheroes of Modern Art. Creative pioneers. Together at the Royal Academy of Arts. Nothing could take my attention away from the “blockbuster” I was about to see.

The exhibition did not disappoint. The curator, David Anfam, has created a cohesively structured show that successfully avoids being either too encyclopedic, or too thematic. One does not need to be an art-historian to enjoy it. It consisted of 12 rooms in the Main Galleries house, with paintings and sculptures by some of the most prominent members of the abstract expressionist movement. The biggest stars — Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko — are all given individual rooms. Coupled with Anfam’s informative audio-guide recordings, you are likely to experience that fandom thrill when the works of the trio are presented in one place.

Visitors go through the rooms, following the chronology of the movement’s development. They start by exploring the roots of Abstract Expressionism, the grim post-war reality of the 1940s and the way this reality was experienced in America. It is in an extremely approachable manner that visitors are introduced to some of the more theoretical aspects of the movement, such as how artists were fusing gesture and colour to create a sense of dynamism in their works, and why they were interested in monochromatic painting. The exhibition ends by featuring artists like Philip Guston, who in the late 1960s began to move away from abstraction and back to pre-war figuration, therefore closing the full circle of Abstract Expressionism’s development. David Anfam masterfully combines the wow-factor of Abstract Expressionism with the complex theoretical ideas behind it, making virtually everyone leave the exhibition feeling educated and inspired — me included. Overall, the exhibition was a completely absorbing experience; one of those events which make you lose track of time for a while.

When I came back to the reality of a bustling Piccadilly, however, I remembered an article that I had read in The Guardian about a week ago. It was a review of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition, written by Adrian Searle. He points to the fact that the exhibition does not present enough works by the female abstract expressionist artists. In all the excitement of coming to the show, I completely forgot about that review and now, after leaving the Burlington House, I started reflecting on it.

This debate about sexism made me think about how Jerry Seinfeld, the great American comedian, has been accused of under-representing African-Americans on his shows. The fact is clear: Seinfeld-the-show has never had a significant African-American character. Does that not seem racist? Seinfeld-the-man had to discuss the topic many times. Once, he pithily responded that accusing him of putting no black people on Seinfeld is like coming to someone’s house for dinner and asking “Why aren’t there any black people?”. Well, why would you assume that there had to be black people at the dinner? Why would you assume that the dinner has to be a proportionate pie chart of society? It’s just a dinner!

Rebecca Vera-Martinez
Photo: The Guardian

I think that the same mentality can be applied to the Abstract Expressionism exhibition – where  has it been written that an exhibition must include the artists of all sexes, ethnicities, social groups and hair colours? After all, it’s just an exhibition! The works were chosen by the curator were based on their objective and subjective artistic virtues, and nothing else. Just because the majority of the works are created by men does not mean that the curator is sexist. It just shows that, historically, not many women are included in the canon of Abstract expressionist superstars. So, curating an exhibition of the most famous artists of that movement, while also including as many women as men, would diminish the integrity of the selection process. End of story.

Abstract Expressionism is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 24 September 2016 until 2 January 2017.


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