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Abstract expressionism: everything you need to know in six easy steps

The Royal Academy is staging the first major abstract expressionism show in the UK for 60 years. Here's everything you need to know

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Abstract Expressionism Royal Academy of Arts, Jackson Pollock, 'Blue Poles', 1952
Jackson Pollock, 'Blue Poles', 1952 © Courtesy of The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS London 2015 EditX

1. It's abstract. And expressionistic.

Abstract expressionism came screaming out of 1950s New York and changed the face of art for ever. On a basic level, it kinda does what it says on the tin. It’s abstract art that’s full of emotion. Annoyingly, the artists all pretty much rejected the label. But the work they produced is some of the most passionate, feverish and intense art of the twentieth century. It’s the kind of art that lots of people look at and think: ‘I could do that’. But let’s be clear here: you probably couldn’t. The big movers and shakers in the movement – Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still – are widely seen as among the most important modern artists. Some of it may look like a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess.

2. It put the USA on the art map

Up until the 1940s, Paris was pretty much the centre of the art world. Europe was the home of surrealism, modernism, cubism and any other -ism you like. But the war screwed that all up, with artists fleeing Europe, and New York became the new art nexus. Abstract expressionism was there to lead the way, but it wasn’t actually that American. Arshile Gorky was Armenian and came to America at 16, Mark Rothko was born in what is now Latvia and came to America in his twenties, and Willem de Kooning was Dutch, emigrated to New York and found work as a house painter.

“Jesse

Willem de Kooning 'Woman, II', 1952

3. It was seriously radical

In an age where you can barely walk into a gallery without stumbling uncomfortably into a nude performance piece, it’s hard to imagine how painting could ever be radical, but it was. In the hands of the abstract expressionists, painting wasn’t just remoulded, it was destroyed and rebuilt from the ground up. Pollock took the canvas off the easel and whacked it on the floor, using sticks to make wild, swirling, drippy marks. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko boiled art down to big blocks of simple, stunning colour. Franz Kline used ultra-quick brushstrokes and attacked the canvas. This was abstraction’s logical conclusion in the wake of the Russian and European avant-garde. They pushed things as far as they could, and nothing would ever be the same again. Well, in art.

“Jesse

Lee Krasner, 'The Eye is the First Circle', 1960

4. The CIA used it as a tool in the Cold War

No, seriously. The CIA saw abstract expressionism as the perfect symbol of America’s freedom of thought, culture and economy, a total up-yours to the Soviets and all their stilted realism. Russian art was confined by communism, locked in figurative, unadventurous conservatism, but American art? That was some dude dripping paint on a canvas! That was freedom! So the CIA backed it just to show those damn Russkies that America was the big player in the art game now. They did it all in secret: none of the artists even knew.

5. It all ended in tears

The abstract expressionists really took the whole ‘tortured artist’ thing by the balls. Pollock became a raging alcoholic and died after crashing his Oldsmobile convertible while drunk. Rothko drank, ate badly, refused to exercise and was generally in terrible health. After his troubled marriage fell apart, he committed suicide in his studio on the same day that his famed Seagram Murals arrived at the Tate. Then there’s Arshile Gorky. In one two-year period, his studio burned down, he got cancer, his wife had an affair with fellow abstract expressionist Roberto Matta and left him, he broke his neck and arm in a car accident and only then committed suicide. Yikes!

“Jesse

Arshile Gorky, 'Water of the Flowery Mill', 1944

6. It wasn't all dudes

Sure, abstract expressionism was a sausage party, but women played a big (and pretty much unrecognised) part in it. So the Royal Academy will be showing work by Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler alongside the big male names. But whether by men or women, the works on show here are going to be seriously awe-inspiring.

'Abstract Expressionism' is at the Royal Academy of Arts September 24–January 2 2017. 

Read our 'Abstract Expressionism' review

Abstract Expressionism Royal Academy of Arts
Jackson Pollock: 'Male and Female', 1942-43. © Courtesy of The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS London 2015
Art, Painting

Abstract Expressionism

Autumn 2016 at the RA is all about New York in the 1940s and ’50s, as this blockbuster survey of abstract expressionism brings together the big deals, bad boys and prodigious boozers of the era. It’s sure to be a swaggeringly audacious show. Abstract expressionism, with its love of spontaneity, automatic and unconscious forms, marks the moment when America took over from Paris as the crucible of modern art.

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