Abstract expressionism

As cool and refreshing as a selection of sorbets: RA’s Milton Avery show reviewed

‘I like the way he puts on paint,’ Milton Avery said about Matisse in 1953, but that was as much as he was prepared to say. Contemporary critics tried to ‘pin Matisse’ on him as if art criticism were a branch of police work. He resisted, and remains a slippery customer. Post-impressionist or abstract expressionist? Colour field painter with added figures? To those who view art history as the march of progress towards modernism, he looks like a backslider. Clement Greenberg thought as much, dismissing him in 1943 as ‘a “light” modern who can produce offspring of Marie Laurencin and Matisse that are empty and sweet with nice flat areas

Joan Eardley deserves to be ranked alongside Bacon and de Kooning

Painting is a fight and few artists demonstrate this more emphatically than the volatile and complicated post-war master, Joan Eardley. Scotland’s great English artist or England’s great Scottish artist, box her as you will, she’s revered north of the border, but often oddly dismissed south of it. The Scottish public have been enthralled by her work for decades, and spoiled in their access to it, with 60 or so pieces in the National Galleries of Scotland collection alone (the Tate has just one). You’re rarely far from an Eardley here, and never more so than in this, her centenary year, which sees some 20 shows and events lined up to

The truth about my father, Philip Guston

Philip Guston’s later work is — and I say this with love — nails-down-a-blackboard weird. The vapid pinks and flat reds lend a nightmare cheerfulness. The menacing American figure wearing Mickey Mouse gloves is rendered in cartoonish style. The clock shows it is time to panic, challenging you to call out the hood for the Ku Klux Klan symbol it appears to be. By the time he started making these paintings, in 1968, Guston was pretty much post-everything: post-realism, post-abstract expressionism, post-criticism (he and his wife Musa sailed to Italy the day after the show’s opening night, and when a review found him in Venice, poste restante, he dropped it

The possibilities of paint

‘The possibilities of paint,’ Frank Bowling has observed, ‘are endless.’ The superb career retrospective of his work at Tate Britain demonstrates as no words could that he is correct, and that the obituaries of this perennial medium — so often declared moribund or defunct — are completely wrong. This presents more than half a century’s virtuoso exploration of what pigment on canvas can achieve. After his first decade of work, Bowling (born 1934) became what is called an abstract artist. But that is a vague and unsatisfactory category. His early, figurative pictures such as ‘Cover Girl’ (1966) could be labelled ‘pop’. It features an image of a Japanese supermodel garnered

The ex factor | 22 November 2018

It is easy to assume that the contours of art history are unchanging, its major landmarks fixed for ever. Actually, like all histories it is a matter of shifting perspectives. As we move through time, the view backwards constantly alters. The rising and falling critical estimations of the painter Richard Smith are a case in point. Had you asked an art-world insider in 1963 who the brightest rising star of British art was there is a strong chance — though other names such as David Hockney might have been mentioned — that the answer would have been Smith (1931–2016). Appropriately, 1963 is the end date of an excellent little show

Writers’ blocks

 Chicago ‘Write drunk, edit sober,’ Ernest Hemingway reportedly said, and Oak Park, on the leafy outskirts of Chicago, is the place where he became a writer (the drink came later). Here is the clapboard house where he was born, and learned to read and write, and a few blocks away is the home where his father blew his brains out in 1928, just as his son would do 33 years later. Violence is ever present in Chicago, even in affluent Oak Park, but despite its reputation (or maybe, in a way, because of it) this is an intensely literary city, and a fitting location for the new American Writers Museum.

American psyche

The latest exhibition at the Royal Academy is entitled America after the Fall. It deals with painting in the United States during the 1930s: that is, the decade before the tidal surge of abstract expressionism. So this show is a sort of prequel to the RA’s great ab ex blockbuster of last autumn. It might have been called, ‘Before Jackson Began Dripping’. Not much in this selection, though, can compare to the power of the abstract expressionists at their peak in the Forties and Fifties — not even an early work by Pollock himself. But it does include a couple of masterpieces by Edward Hopper, plus several pictures so brashly

Trivial pursuits | 1 December 2016

Robert Rauschenberg, like Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, was a ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’. Unlike Shakespeare’s character, however, he made them into art. Rauschenberg’s most celebrated piece, ‘Monogram’, on view in the grand retrospective of his work at Tate Modern, comprises, among other bits and pieces, a rubber shoe heel, a tennis ball, and a car tyre-plus-oil paint on stuffed angora goat. Next to it is another amalgam from the mid-Fifties, incorporating ‘paint, paper, fabric, printed paper reproductions, sock and army-issue flare parachute on canvas’. Modern-art sceptics — a dwindling group but not yet extinct — might conclude that this stuff deserves that time-honoured epithet ‘a load of old rubbish’.

Figures in a landscape | 10 November 2016

Timothy Hyman’s remarkable new book makes the case for the relevance of figurative painting in the 20th century, a period effectively dominated by modernist abstraction. He identifies an alternative tradition of potent human-centred painting, coming out of Cubism and Expressionism and tracing its lineage through Chagall and Leger, the Italians Carlo Carra and Mario Sironi, the Germans Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz, to Stanley Spencer, Edward Burra and William Roberts. Hyman claims many of the great independent artists for his argument — Balthus, Kirchner, Bonnard, Ensor — and registers them as resistance fighters in the war of influence and received opinion. He is not interested in traditionalist academic

New York: Dives of the artists

Fernand Léger’s old studio now has squatters living on the doorstep. They’re an unusual sight in the new New York, especially around Bowery. These ones, at no. 222, are African and live in a huge cardboard box decorated with industrial plastic. As a pioneering modernist, Léger would have appreciated their geometry — and poverty. He’d have been less sure about the building opposite: the New Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s covered in silvery mesh, and looks like a giant speaker with a fishing boat dangling off the top. How, he might wonder, had art become so extravagant and obscure? Poor Léger, he needn’t worry. Styles may have changed, but the

American beauty | 29 September 2016

‘At last,’ wrote Patrick Heron, a British painter, in 1956, ‘we can see for ourselves what it is to stand in a very large room hung with very large canvases by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline and others.’ Just over 60 years later, we, too, can stand in a series of grand galleries at the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism and see what Heron saw, and much more. He was at the (greatly anticipated) first showing of those fabled American artists in Britain. Since then, they have frequently been exhibited individually, but there has been just one collective show of the movement. Now Pollock, de

Best in show | 31 December 2015

Until a decade and a half ago, we had no national museum of modern art at all. Indeed, the stuff was not regarded as being of much interest to the British; now Tate Modern is about to expand vastly and bills itself as the most popular such institution in the world. The opening of the new, enlarged version on 17 June — with apparently 60 per cent more room for display — will be one of the art world events of the year. But, like all jumbo galleries, it will face the question: what on earth to put in all that space? Essentially, there are two answers to that conundrum.

Approachable abstraction

Fifteen million pounds and a hefty slice of architectural vision have transformed the Whitworth from a fusty Victorian art temple into a sumptuous and thoroughly modern gallery. The space inside now channels the visitor from one gallery to another through split levels and along wide, glass-walled extensions. The great barrel-vaulted spaces at the gallery’s core are now flooded with light from the opening up of the building into the park around it. The redevelopment has embraced the landscape surrounding the gallery and thinned the barrier between inside and out. The transformation is impressive; the sense of space remarkable. The ground floor currently houses a huge assortment of exhibits including, among

Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy reviewed: among the best visual evocations of LA there are

It is true that, like wine, certain artists don’t travel. Richard Diebenkorn, subject of the spring exhibition in the Royal Academy’s Sackler Wing, is a case in point: an American painter who is revered in his native land, but of whom few will have heard over here. Will the RA show change that, and — more crucially — does it deserve to? Up to a point. Diebenkorn (1922–93) was no Mark Rothko or Willem de Kooning. He was a second-generation abstract expressionist, almost two decades younger than those two, and a lower-voltage talent to boot. But he created some memorably beautiful pictures, most of the best of them situated in

A strain of mysticism is discernible in the floating colour fields of Mark Rothko’s glowing canvases

One of the curiosities of western art is that, until the 20th century, few visual artists were of Jewish ancestry. With odd exceptions such as the Pissarros and Simeon Solomon, the culture tended to produce verbal rather than visual imaginations. With the 20th century that changed. The important group of abstract expressionists that came out of New York after the second world war centred on at least two Jewish artists — Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Both possessed a specifically Jewish imagination, and both narrowed down their pictorial language to forms that expressed mystical aspects of their ancestral culture and faith. In Newman’s case it was the ‘zip’, a thin

How Rothko become the mythic superman of mystical abstraction

Mark Rothko was an abstract artist who didn’t see himself as an abstract artist — or at least not in any ‘formalist’ sense. If a critic called him a ‘colourist’, he would bristle; if they admired his sense of composition, he would complain that this was not what he was about at all. His was an art of deep content, his subject an invocation of the religious, the tragic, the mythic. ‘The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them,’ he once famously said. ‘And if you, as you say, are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss