Review: Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy

Art History Lecturer Mahenderpal Sorya gives us his review of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. 

I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.

Jackson Pollock

Artists considered to be ‘abstract expressionist’ in their approach sought to explore the world inside of the Self. A process is engaged with where feeling is expressed through the act of the painting process itself rather than the product of that act. Surrealism, modern psychology and processes such as automatism and improvisation inspired acts of making with minimal conscious intervention. It is perhaps more useful, therefore, to consider this approach to art making as a process rather than a style.

This makes the bringing together of artists working in this way a challenge as many abstract expressionist artists expressed the individual, singular experience, each of them engaging in a unique art making process. They did so in the context of 1940/50s New York and so these artists, mostly immigrants, would have lived through socio-political events of the 1930s – 40s such as the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War Two and the atomic bombing of Japan. Many abstract expressionist artists were troubled by this dark and depressing time and felt morally compelled to engage in art making in a way which was new and addressed the things they viewed to be absurd or irrational. The movement made a huge impact; it’s sometimes considered to be the first specifically American movement to achieve international influence and put New York at the centre of the art world.

Although abstract expressionist works have been exhibited widely, this exhibition is unique as it offers the opportunity to experience works by a range of artists brought together for the first time in a long time. It features work by well-known artists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. The Royal Academy (RA) gallery spaces are ideal in being able to accommodate the large scale of some of the work and to enable viewers to feel immersed. One of the qualities of abstract expressionist work is that there are no illusions – you can see the process, this is pure formalism. Every inch of the canvas is liberated too, there are no focal points, no centre, foreshortening, perspectives or horizons. You are encouraged to engage in a process which immerses you into a canvas filled with marks and gestures that can be soothing, calm or quiet and others that can throb and pulsate aggressively, the energy of the process lives on. Something that’s apparent immediately as you walk into the first gallery space is that these are marks that reflect the emotional state of the artist who created them and in turn, when we approach them as receptively as possible, they offer an experience as subjective as the process of their creation.

As you explore the exhibition, consider each canvas being a sort of ‘arena’ – the canvas a stage which has been performed on by the artist. Consider the process and the impact of the work on the way you feel. This can be challenging at the RA as there is perhaps too much work on display, however, there are also opportunities to do this in a more contemplative way as well as opportunities to consider the entire space (including the gallery’s architectural features) as an installation – especially in the Clyfford Still room.

This is a unique opportunity to introduce yourself to abstract expressionism or deepen your understanding of this diverse range of artists. Despite them being brought together and described as a group, it is important to recognise this as an exhibition exploring the power and potency of individual expression, as Barnett Newman once described “there was never a movement in the conventional sense of a ‘style’ but a collection of individual voices.”


Art History Lecturer Mahenderpal Sorya gives us his review of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art.

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