Abstract Expressionism

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen


Mark Rothko, Yellow Band, 1956
Oil on canvas, 218.8 x 201.9 cm
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska


The Abstract Expressionism exhibition that opened at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in London last autumn has now moved to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. It’s one of the best exhibitions I have seen in quite some time. Curated by David Anfam, Edith Devaney and Lucia Agirre, this unforgettable show brings together over 130 paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs from public and private collections around the world. It showcases works by artists who led a major shift in the art world that began in the 1940s, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, David Smith and Clyfford Still. Time to have a conversation on Abstract Expressionism with the show’s world-renowned curator, David Anfam.

Mart Engelen: How would you define Abstract Expressionism?
David Anfam: Abstract art that more or less seeks to convey human emotions. As Rothko said, very simply he wanted to convey ecstasy, tragedy and doom. It’s the language of finding
abstract equivalents for human emotions and, firstly, although the name Abstract Expressionism is much criticised, to some extent I have always believed it’s quite useful because ‘abstract’ and ‘expression’ are what it’s about.
ME: If you compare, say, the works of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and use the term action painting and show your emotions instantly, like Pollock did, would you say that
Rothko worked much more thoughtfully in the way he used his brush?
DA: Yes and no. Because Pollock was very conscious when he was painting. He knew exactly how to control paint. He said, ‘There is no chaos. I can control the flow of paint’.
Rothko for instance said, ‘Look closer. Behind the paint lies a cataclysm’. In a way, he was just as much an action painter as Pollock. But it comes out in a different way. If you take Pollock’s Mural, it was supposed to be painted in one month. Well, it wasn’t. It took him at least two to three months.
ME: Many people think that, in a way, action painting created chaos but it was not chaotic at all, it was very well organised in the mind ….
DA: The Italian critic Bruno Alfieri recognised Abstract Expressionism very early on even when he was critical and Pollock famously sent him a telegram in 1950 with the text ‘No
chaos, damn it’. So chaos is not there; it’s very controlled. Even when you look at the most spontaneous kind of art, like Sam Francis and certainly Pollock, Joan Mitchell, it’s carefully
ME: I’m Dutch, so where do we place Willem de Kooning in this group?
DA: It’s a very good point because he emigrated quite early on. A great deal of the elements in De Kooning’s art comes from Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. There is no question about it. I discovered that when De Kooning finished his largest painting, Excavation, and sent it off to the Venice Biennale in 1950, underneath it was a reproduction of Bruegel’s Triumph of death. And even Zot, a wonderful little painting here from the Metropolitan; if you go back to medieval times, in certain types of religious belief, there was a place for a fool for Christ. It was a very coded reference. It’s a dead, ashen grey painting and there is one smear of orange like blood. De Kooning once said that he preferred the old masters to any other modern painting. And one of
the things I like to stress about the whole phenomenon— not a movement, because a movement has manifestos and a very close group of artists in Berlin or maybe Paris or something— the AbEx, as I call it, is that the abstract expressionists were much more widespread: New York, the West Coast and Canada, where some came from. I want to mention one more thing, people don’t realise it but Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko were the two artists who never broke with each other. Still admired Pollock but would never say he admired anything. And Pollock said that Still makes the rest of us look academic or something like that. At the entrance to the show in London, we put a quote by Jackson Pollock on the wall: ‘Clifford Still, Mark Rothko and I, we changed the nature of painting’. Something to remember is that these artists, many of them, were the last artists to belong to what we call in France, paintre maudit.
ME: So after these artists, we didn’t see this in art anymore?
DA: No. America gets very affluent, it becomes the most affluent superpower in the world and you get a whole different type of artist, like Rauschenberg, Johns.
ME: Well, thank you for this conversation.
DA: Thank you.

—Copyright 2017 Mart Engelen


Abstract Expressionism