4 January 2017


The Royal Academy’s exhibition of abstract expressionism, which just finished, was the first show dedicated to this important post-war art movement for a long time and it gathered many representative paintings by its leading exponents – Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Mark Tobey, Phillip Guston and Sam Francis. It’s an impressive undertaking because of the scale on which these painters worked  - most of Still’s canvasses, for example, are over ten feet tall.

Clyfford Still, PH-1123
These paintings have more meaning than a lot of representational works. They weren't just pattern making. The artists were notable for their intensity and high seriousness. The content of the representational pop-art that succeeded it was slight in comparison – the two movements illustrated Clement Greenberg’s distinction between avant-garde and kitsch, though pop art undermined it as well. There were psychological, political and religious depths to abstract expressionism. Rothko and de Kooning were in their way deeply troubled individuals and their work expressed their visions and anxieties.

Mark Rothko, Yellow Band

I've included images of paintings I like, but their huge size makes reproduction pretty pointless. You can’t get what they were about unless you are, as Pollock said of his way of creating, inside the paintings.

The story of how the CIA backed abstract expressionism is now well known. The CIA thought – correctly – that the movement illustrated the personal and artistic freedoms that existed in the West in contrast to the sycophantic art of Russia. But the CIA knew that modern art was controversial and that the politicians were unlikely to approve of their operation, so they funded it covertly. “The New American Painting”, an exhibition that travelled around the world,  was privately sponsored, but the sponsor’s money came from the CIA.

Franz Kline,  Andrus

I wonder if the CIA evaluated their campaign? Abstract expressionism would have developed without them, although it may not have had quite as much exposure. Did the CIA persuade a single left-leaning artist who looked at Pollock, Rothko or Newman that life in the free world was better than in the Soviet Union? It’s hard to imagine the New York avant garde having any doubts. In 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes and the Soviet invasion of Hungary put paid to any illusions about the superiority of Communism. Altogether, the CIA sponsorship of abstract expressionism may have been expensive and unnecessary.

Rest After Battle (1955)

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