New World sublime
Many rarely lent paintings have been brought together with photographs and sculpture for the UK’S first major exhibition on the radical 20th-century art movement in nearly six decades. Charles Darwent considers its origins and directions
The defining image of Abstract expressionism wasn’t made by a painter, but by a photographer, hans Namuth. In 1950, he photographed Jackson Pollock in the Long Island barn that doubled as his studio, working on the canvas he called One: Number 31. What makes the portrait so compelling is that it’s so very wrong.
Pollock’s canvas isn’t standing on an easel, but lying on the floor, unstretched. It is also enormous—so vast that the top and both ends of it are cut off by the edge of Namuth’s photo. Then, there’s the artist himself. Pollock isn’t dressed like a painter, but like a beatnik, in black jeans and T-shirt; his posture is that of a speed skater. In his right hand, he holds a brush with which he is flicking what is clearly household gloss at the canvas on the floor. everything that art was meant to be in 1950—meticulous, skilled, highbrow—is upended by Namuth’s portrait of the man who would inevitably be dubbed ‘Jack the Dripper’.
What was going on? Thirty years before, German artists had hit on a style they called expressionismus, anglicised as ‘expressionism’, the opposite of Impressionism. Where Monet and the rest showed an external world of quick light and colour, expressionists, traumatised by the horrors of the First World War, worked outwards from their own psychic pain.
As is the way with art, this quickly generated its own antimovement—abstractionists such as Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers, who dismissed expressionism as self-indulgent. (‘Vomit, but with the elbows this time,’ Albers hissed.)
Meanwhile, America, isolationist in art as in politics, went on her merry way. A decade before Namuth’s portrait, Pollock had been painting faux-mexican murals. Like the expressionists, it took a war to change him.
Jackson Pollock’s swan song Blue poles (1952) celebrates the very act of creating a painting. Displayed for the first time with his monumental Mural (1943), it is a highlight of the vast central Gallery 3 of the RA’S exhibition hung with 16 of his paintings