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Exhibition Review : Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy – 24th September 2016 to 2nd January 2017


The Royal Academy of Arts presents the first major exhibition of Abstract Expressionism to be held in the UK in almost sixty years . The exhibition features over 150 paintings, sculptures and photographs from public and private collections across the world and includes works  by acclaimed American artists including Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Phillip Guston, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Aaron Siskind, David Smith and Clyfford Still.


In 1946, critic Robert Coates coined the term  ‘Abstract  Expressionism’  to describe a new  movement in American art.  The artists who were considered part of this movement did not follow a particular school of painting but were generally Americans living through the politically turbulent times of the 1940s,50s and 60s.


Arshile Gorky was considered one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism by the way that he was able to create a synthesis between various trends such as Cubism and Surrealism.

Three of the first seven rooms of the exhibition are given over to the three most famous names of the movement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko all bought their own originality to creating works that began to challenge some of the traditional views of painting.


Jackson Pollock developed a process  of painting that involved a canvas being laid onto the ground and paint being dropped onto the canvas to create intricate webs of paint that built up into a complex tangle of paint and colour.  Pollock’s monumental  Mural (1943) and Blue Poles ( 1952) are shown in the same gallery for the first time in the exhibition.


Willem de Kooning’s  work often turns its back on pure abstract by alternating between abstraction and figurative. Like many artists, he was inspired by the female form and many of his works such as Woman II ( 1952) have an erotic aspect.


Mark Rothko maintained many of his paintings were ‘facades’ and the way that the artist created a painting of seemingly simple blocks of colour would suggest they could be taken merely on their ‘face value’. However they create a number of complex responses from the viewer who is often drawn into the picture.


Many of the other rooms in the exhibition explore some of the many responses of artists to their surroundings in post war America. Gesture as Colour, The Violent Mark and  Darkness Visible  illustrate how some artists responded to the often violent times and urban life.


Works by Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and Clyfford Still are featured in the later rooms with sculptures by David Smith being used in many rooms and outside in the courtyard.


Whilst Abstract Expressionism is rooted in post war America, it has since garnered universal appeal with some of the best known artists achieving ‘iconic’ status. This exhibition brings together works that illustrate that a diverse group of artists created a particular response to the troubled times they lived in.  Since the growth of interest in Abstract Expressionism, it had tended to divide opinion and is often criticised for being too simplistic. Others admire the often monumental scale of the works and their spontaneity and energy.


This exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to make their own minds up with one of the largest shows of Abstract Expressionism works ever seen in the UK.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

Opening Times

10am – 6pm daily (last admission 5.30pm)

Fridays and Saturdays until 10pm (last admission 9.30pm)


£17 full price (£15 without Gift Aid donation); concessions available;

Children under 16 and Friends of the RA go free.

For more information and book tickets, visit the Royal Academy website here

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