So concluded Waldemar Januszczak in his review of the new Abstract Expressionist show at the RA, which he also felt was ‘no nonsense’, and ‘superb’.
A great show hoves into view and suddenly everybody seems astonished to find that Abstract Expressionist painting is relevant, exciting and can ‘illuminate the present’. The fascination here, is not in the sheer range and quality of works on show – which if the reviews are anything to go by – represent a masterclass in arm twisting, persuasion and dogged determination – but the fact that all of this has been dismissed as irrelevant for so long; mostly, it seems, by individuals who don’t paint for a living.
Januszczak puts his finger on it when he says that ‘we think too much and feel too little‘, but where does this particular finger point?
I’m sad to say it points fairly squarely at art educators, critics and that whole coterie who’ve been urging us to put down our brushes and get with the digital revolution. They it would seem to me are squarely to blame for both our institutional neglect of great painting and ridiculous scrabble for the next ‘new’ digital 4D, 5D or 6D ( I lost the plot after 3D), thing.
The themes here are not new, Abstract Expressionism is about feeling, human truths, mindfulness – and yes let’s use the forbidden word – beauty. That Art could simply be pleasing, simply be beautiful, be accessible, be evocative , all of that has been an anathema to ‘serious’ artists for decades. Whistler got it, Ruskin didn’t and the courts had the sense to back the artist’s vision.
A couple of years ago I went to the RA to take in A Bigger Picture by Hockney, a show that absolutely did not need a dictionary or MA in Art History to explain itself, to the thousands of people who queued up to experience it.
Many critics wrote that show off as lightweight, a bit archaic, a little popularist, not very well made – and all of that; ignoring the fact that it was liked by most of the public and it engaged.
A Bigger Picture did of course, contain many weightier themes such as painting remembered spaces (Woldgate woods re-imagined as a childhood paradise), questioning the validity, and the potential of seeing through a lens rather than with our own eyes, engaging with digital media ; but – and this is important – it was quite possible to love the show and ‘get’ it on several levels.
Around a year later I recall visiting the Turner Prize, it was needless to say, a very different experience; not least because nobody who wasn’t interested in art really bothered to go, and many of those who were there seemed to spend most of their time concentrating on how they were looking, rather than what they were looking at.
My impression? One of vacuity.
Passionless, self-referential, self -congratulatory, elitist, rarefied; these almost seem to be de rigeur for the curation and presentation of contemporary art shows; it’s as though artists set out to create an intellectual barrier between great ideas and ordinary people. So Abstract Expressionism might be a bit overblown, dramatic, crude even, but boy you can’t deny that it engages and communicates.
There is good art around – even great art, and certainly some good painting, however I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost the trick of presenting it as though it is IMPORTANT and not just a dry synopsis of an MA thesis.
The ‘Ab Exes’ (as Januszczak would have them), understood that in visual art,the visual matters; and that simple truth in itself has to be worth the price of entry.