I visited Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts on 9 November 2016 – the day of the US elections and immediately after visiting Bowie/Collector at Sotheby’s around the corner. A connection between the three didn’t strike me until the next day when the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States stirred intense emotions deep in my psyche about Americans. I wondered why so much of Bowie’s chosen art came from his birth nation and not his adopted homeland. I also wondered why England seemed to be on his mind so much during the last months of his life as reflected in his final album Blackstar – “if I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to…“. I wondered about his relationship with America. Two songs in particular sprung to mind – I’m Afraid of Americans and This is Not America.
Feeling complex emotions about the state of the world and what had just happened in America, and with Bowie’s songs in my head, the visuals flashing before my eyes were of the work of several of the Abstract Expressionists working in America in the 1940s and 50s that I’d seen the day before. Although I’ve seen most of the works several times before, including in America, they have never evoked quite such a dark response in me. The violence, the darkness, the nihilism in many of the vast canvases became palpable. Perhaps they were born out of the times the artists had lived through – world wars, the Great Depression, the Atom Bomb, and the Cold War. Some key artists had a dark end. Arshile Gorky’s work is very sombre, and must have reflected his mood as he hanged himself in 1949. Similarly, with Jackson Pollock. His visceral work needs no introduction and the rhythmic, sweeping, veins of paint suggest inner demons that drove him to his death in his quasi-suicidal car crash in 1956.
Franz Kline, working in Bowie’s adopted city of New York, created darkly poetic works in monochrome where the forms collide violently and give a sense of imbalance and chaos. These portentous feelings are also evoked by the work of Jack Tworkov and Robert Motherwell. Conrad Marca-Relli took violence to a physical level by cutting pieces of canvas with a razor blade and sticking and sowing the pieces onto a larger canvass. His work gives me a clear impression of the aftermath of war, like bandages covering up horrific injuries and the rough stitching together of flesh.
Mark Rothko’s work also tends towards the sombre – reflecting human mood music – tragedy, doom, and hopelessness. Ad Rheinhardt’s works in black suggest nothingness, death, the end. Clifford Still’s canvasses depict the abyss interrupted by the odd splash of paint applied by palette knife perhaps expressing a struggle for life over death. The courtyard outside the RA and the exhibition itself are littered with the work of sculptor David Smith which, whilst exploring several themes, often reflect a latent violence and darkness too.
In his depictions of women – grotesque, monstrous, satiric – Willem de Kooning hints at a depraved misogyny that could embody Donald Trump today. Misogyny is accompanied by references to racism as racial tensions are evident in the ethnic blackness of the work of Caribbean-American Norman Lewis.
If it is really all about timing, my visit couldn’t have been timed better. Introverted, dark, sombre, a sense of foreboding – these expressed my mood perfectly the next day. “A little piece of you, the little peace in me” died that day. This is not America – at least not the America I want to accept – but it has been laid bare. The Abstract Expressionists were breaking new ground artistically in the 1940s and 50s but 70 years later their work has renewed relevance for me.
I couldn’t wait to get out of the stifling atmosphere of the City, overwhelmed by the deep divisions in humanity. I wanted to breath in the vastness and freshness of the ocean. I wanted to escape the sombre greys and blacks to see the colours of nature. It will take me days if not weeks to get rid of those abstract expressions that humanity is in a worse place than it has been for many years. I’m afraid of Americans indeed.