‘Abstract Expressionism’ – an exhaustive, 130-work, group show curated by David Anfam, Edith Devaney and Lucia Agirre – opened at Guggenheim Bilbao in early February after much acclaim at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. The rationale behind this blockbuster-style show is that the movement was a multifaceted group phenomenon, involving artists from all mediums and practices, and spanning the East to West Coast of America. Prominent names such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Willem de Kooning are not typically associated with group shows; rather represented in large-scale solo retrospectives dedicated to exploring their individual oeuvres. The exhibition is a major feat; most of these works haven’t been seen in tandem since 1959. However, the curators are quick to point out that a group setting shouldn’t be misread as implying homogeneity or unification. Unlike the preceding movements of Cubism and Surrealism, there was no manifesto, no artistic agreement to follow. At its core, the Abstract Expressionist movement celebrated freedom of expression and freedom of emotion, and this dedication to the creation of a two-way encounter between artist and viewer was interpreted in diverse ways – ranging from the spontaneous to the sombre.
The exhibition opens with an assembling of early works, positioning the artists within an era of unrest and destruction, wrecked by the Great Depression, two World Wars and the atomic bomb. With contemporary hindsight, we know that their work would continue to be inspired by the ricochet effects of these global events, most notably the disturbing unease of the Cold War. The Guggenheim’s rooms – quintessential bright, white and airy cubes - are dedicated to specific artists: Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still. The relationship between Gorky and de Kooning is palpable – colour and line, abstraction and figuration fusing in dramatic and symbolic ways. Kline’s monochromatic paintings are darkly poetic and closely architectonic, followed appropriately by the potency of Rothko’s sublime canvases, which have the ability to stop you in your tracks each and every time. The room dedicated to Still is an unusual cyclical space, which works well with the power of his colossal canvases looming over you. Still’s inclusion in the show is particularly significant as this is the first time that the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver has loaned major paintings to another institution.
Lee Krasner’s monumental canvas The Eye is the First Circle (1960) is hung in the room dedicated to Pollock. This inclusion of Krasner’s painting as merely ‘a memorable single tribute to Pollock’s seismic achievement’ (as it states in the exhibition materials), as opposed to representing the seismic achievement of her own skill is problematic. Indeed, the lack of female representation in the show leaves a bitter taste. Out of over 130 works, there are three works by Lee Krasner, two by Joan Mitchell, one by Helen Frankenthaler, and two photographs by Barbara Morgan. It seems that the exhibition’s desire for a ‘revisionist’ approach – paying attention to works on paper and sculpture, as exemplified by littering David Smith’s sculptures throughout the galleries, doesn’t extend as far as women. It is disappointing that there is no attempt to challenge the canonical status quo. Although as the Guerrilla Girls’ recent research and exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery pointed out, Guggenheim Bilbao collect a nominal number of female artists, alongside not representing any gender non-conforming artists in their programmes. Similarly, The Royal Academy hardly has a reputation for being a bastion of major female retrospectives.
The final rooms of the exhibition are dedicated to more thematic displays. Whereas the Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhart pairing is a good fit, complimenting each other through their use of condensed chromatics and geometric precision, the other rooms feel a little like over-crowded afterthoughts. This is a shame as there is great work here by artists such as Robert Motherwell, Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston. These canvases need to be given more room to breathe, akin to the space that the ‘heavyweight’ names are afforded. The addition of a photography section is a nice touch, however, providing both historical context and mirroring joint aesthetic concerns of boldness, darkness and intensity.
On the whole, this is a substantial and enjoyable exhibition. It is also one that feels pertinent as we enter a new dark age of political change and social unrest, reminding us to keep the channels of artistic creativity and productive exchange open.