We went to the Royal Academy’s blockbusting Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the weekend and, as usual, I really struggled to get to grips with this (for me) difficult art movement. A part of me looks at the huge canvases, daubed apparently randomly, and I can’t help but think that if I tied paintbrushes to my cats’ tails they could produce similar effects, without all the rock’n’roll style angst, suicide and hoo-ha that this group of artists were notorious for. It’s the argument that’s always used against ‘modern’ art and I can appreciate how tiring it must be for those who love Abstract Expressionism – but it still pops to my mind every time. Very emperor’s new clothes. And yet, and yet …. I can’t deny that this is an amazing collection of pictures, very strong and very bleak.
I am beginning to see something with Rothko, for years the artist I’ve had the most trouble understanding. He’s done nothing for me before but this time, at last, standing in front of the Rothkos arranged in an anteroom off the main galleries, I could point myself at each canvas in turn and feel a different emotion. None of them pleasant feelings, it must be said – but then Rothko was hardly a happy bunny. Maybe I’ve just been rejecting his projection of negative emotions? Hard to know. I did notice that people stayed much longer in the Rothko anteroom than in the main galleries. Do people enjoy his work as a form of catharsis? I have no problem seeing Romeo and Juliet suffering yet again on stage, but I’ve been throwing Rothko’s depression back in his face for years. I’m not sure whether it’s a good sign or not that I can now feel it.
Anyway, whatever my doubts, it’s undeniable that this is an epic exhibition, with all the big names of Abstract Expressionism represented. All men (apart from a canvas by a woman about a man). All feeling very entitled to spread their views around. And, of course, the stars of the show are a load of Pollocks. I do love those though.