Abstract Expressionism is serious, grown-up stuff. It's about existential anxiety and overwhelming emotions. It's about death and the absurdity of life. It's a quest for the sublime and it is concerned with the apotheosis of art and artist. There's little room for levity, playfulness, naivety and silliness in Abstract Expressionism, which is rather ironic given that it's the type of art that prompts many people to declare things like "my five year old could do that".
Unless these people have alarmingly sombre, brooding, and morbid five year olds (think Little Father Time in Hardy's Jude the Obscure), it's unlikely that their children could "do that". Of course anyone can drip some paint all over a canvas or fill the entire space with one colour, whereas nobody unskilled could even begin to fathom how to sculpt a giant statue of David. But that's missing the point. The reason Pollock, Rothko, Newman, Still and all the other Abstract Expressionists whose work is now on display in the Royal Academy's stunning exhibition (the movement's first in the UK in 60 years) are artists, and the world's five year olds are not, is that their art operates as a profound examination of human emotion in a devastated postwar world.
So what is Abstract Expressionism? The movement, which emerged and thrived in New York in the late 1940s, consists of two distinct strands: the gestural, dynamic paintings of the likes of Pollock, de Kooning and Kline, and the minimalistic colour-field pieces produced by Rothko, Newman and Still amongst others. Initially there seems to be very little in common between Pollock's loud, visceral and violent throwing of colours on a canvas and one of Newman's monochrome, monolithic pieces. But both fall under the umbrella of Abstract Expressionism. Whilst these styles are certainly distinct, they crucially both resist any form of realistic figural depiction, and they're both more interested in expressing the essence of the internal world of emotions than representing the external, physical world.
Both abstract and expressionistic art had been around since the early 20th century. But nothing which had come before was ever on this scale, or so imbued with raw, spontaneous emotion. Indeed, the monumental size of the works that were created by the Abstract Expressionists in the wake of the Second World War seems proportional to the sheer magnitude of the horror and despair that it generated.
Blue Poles 1952 (C) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY
To really get a sense of the immensity of these works you have to go see them in a gallery. Obviously no online or textbook image can ever do a piece of art justice, but with some paintings you can get a relatively good idea of what it's about even when viewing it remotely. Not so with Abstract Expressionism. If I'm honest, I went to this exhibition more out of general curiosity than any deep admiration for the work of Pollock, Rothko, Newman etc. But standing in front of these huge canvases at the RA I was certainly left feeling rather awestruck. A piece such as Pollock's Blue Poles may seem a bit like an incoherent mess if you look at it online, but in person you can suddenly appreciate the unexpected harmony that underlines his work. His gestural, drip-paintings are the physical manifestations of feelings of anxiety and torment; colours and forms fusing and bleeding into one another. It's certainly spontaneous, but nothing about it seems arbitrary. The whole composition is balanced as Pollock demonstrates that there is something almost beautiful to be found even in the midst of great distress.
It's definitely easy to be cynical about a work such as Franz Kline's Vawdavitch, essentially some black paint on a white canvas, but when you see it in a gallery you can get a sense of the raging darkness of his mind. This isn't faux-anger, or the experience of anger recalled by an artist at his easel at a later date. It's real, it's immediate and staring you back in the face. In contrast to Pollock and Kline, Newman, Rothko and Still present slow, solemn pieces which invite introspection. Yes, these paintings are just one or two colours on a giant canvas, but for all their simplicity, they're able to provoke antithetical metaphysical responses. They can simultaneously be seen as pursuits of infinity and purity or as giant abysses ready to swallow you whole. And there's something genuinely unsettling about the vertical lines that cut through Newman's compositions, or the blurred edges of Rothko's squares, or the jagged, Richter-scale type lines found in Clyfford Still's work. It's not a feeling that you can precisely pinpoint or explain though, and that to me seems to be a part of Abstract Expressionism's enigmatic appeal.
Ulysses 1952, (C) Barnett Newman
Much of the criticism that was levied against Abstract Expressionism when it emerged was that it was too inaccessible, too philosophical at the expense of a visual aesthetic, and too elitist in its promotion of the artist as a kind of heroic, individual figure. All of this is true to an extent, and Pop Art would go on to dismantle and ridicule everything that Abstract Expressionism stood for. But at the same time, there's something very universal and social about this movement's emphasis on human emotions. When there are no figures to distract you and not much discernible technical skill to praise, all you can do is engage with, and understand what the artist himself was feeling when he created his art. The atrocities of WWII were in part propagated by millions of unfeeling men and women who acted on orders like machines. Through their art the Abstract Expressionists seem to have been trying to ensure that no one could again be so cold, so detached from the basic human emotions.
Now can your five year old do all that? Didn't think so.