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If you don’t leave this show feeling completely overwhelmed and totally breathless, you’re either blind, dead or a bit of a dick. The RA has pulled together room after room of paintings and sculptures from probably the most important art movement of the twentieth century and it’s staggering.
The abstract expressionists tore painting apart and restructured it into something bigger than it ever had been: more abstract, more passionate, bigger, bolder. This show’s got all the headline names – Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, etc, etc etc – and there’s a lot to get through. It’s mainly organised by artist, with a couple of thematic spaces, and every room feels like walking through a greatest hits compilation.
It kicks off with Arshile Gorky, the ab-ex daddy. His blobby, twisting fusions of cubism and surrealism are angry, brave and tormented. But they’re just an appetiser for the massive room of Pollocks that follows. Seriously, there are tons of them: it’s incredible. They’re brutal, intense, aggressive and tightly composed. Not all of them are great – and probably the standout work in this room is by Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, an artist who deserves a whole show in her own right – but seeing so many in one room is awe-inspiring. It’s a herd of Pollocks, a whole flock, it’s like being on Pollock safari. And seriously, ‘Blue Poles’ is a genuine 100 percent fucking masterpiece.
Then you dive into a cathedral of Rothkos, filled with lime greens, dark blues and pulsating yellows. Then a whole room of immense Clyfford Still paintings, like the remnants of a thousand torn down street posters.
Loop back to the Franz Kline room, painting after painting of insanely angry black marks on white canvases. Then de Kooning swoops in with his explosive cubism.
You keep going until you hit Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and Ad Reindhart. Newman separated colours into big blocks, like flags for countries that haven’t been invented yet. But Reindhardt – oh man, Reinhardt! – he just concludes the whole thing, sums it all up with two big black canvasses. Just black! Nothing else! It’s the logical endpoint of abstraction and it’s perfect.
We've only just skimmed the surface of what’s in this show. There are beautiful works by Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and David Smith, and a ridiculously depressing late Rothko. The show seriously doesn’t need to be this good. There’s so much here, so many incredible works by incredible artists, it’s almost too much. It could be half as a big, half as good, and it would still be great.
The only issue is that it all peters out a bit. The last rooms of photographs and late works aren’t the triumphant final toot that this show needed. It all gets a bit flabby. It should have stopped with Reinhardt: that would have been a statement.
Other reviews of this show have had issues with some of the curating, the lack of various artists or even how the catalogue is written, one even said there are too many Pollocks – but fuck ’em, who cares? You’re not here for clever artsy-fartsy bullshit. You’re here because you want to stand in a room, surrounded by history, and get totally lost in some amazing art. All these works in one place, it might just be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Don’t miss it.
What to read more? Here's our six step guide to abstract expressionism