Wednesday, October 5, 2016

‘Abstract Expressionism’ Review: Some Americans Abroad

by Tom L. Freudenheim

Wall Street Journal

October 4, 2016

It’s a spine-tingling experience for an American visitor to encounter the spectacular Abstract Expressionism exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. The truly patriotic may also see it as a confirmation of, as art historian and critic Irving Sandler put it in the title of his 1970 book on the movement, The Triumph of American Painting. Perhaps that’s why, on entering the RA’s courtyard, one can’t help but chuckle at the life-size bronze of the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), first president of the Royal Academy, apparently looking away from the imposing group of David Smith (1906-1965) abstract metal sculptures installed as an introduction to the show.

As the heir to various modes of European abstract painting, American Abstract Expressionism was understood to be a home-grown approach to art that exercised a powerful force from the 1940s into the 1960s. This first major U.K. exhibition in almost six decades on a subject so central to American art history—163 works in a splendid sequential visual package with beginning, middle and end—is meant to present these works as “informed by new thinking.” But it mostly confirms the canonical and heroic mythology of an art world commandeered by a small group of macho guys that’s long been the primary way in which this historical yarn has been spun.

So the London show may disappoint those who want to reset the inclusiveness button in regard to gender equity, despite several paintings by Lee Krasner, and single works by Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Janet Sobel and Louise Nevelson (strangely, the only sculptor of any gender other than Smith to merit inclusion). A far greater number of artists and their variant styles—especially the inclusion of more sculpture than only the splendid Smiths here—would have presented a more complete and complex view of what comes off as a fairly neat and familiar package.


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