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The Impact of Display: Abstract Expressionism in London and Bilbao

Royal Academy, London: 24 Sept 2016 – 2 Jan 2017

Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao: 3 Feb – 4 June 2017

Review by Paul Carey Kent

There are three immediate factors in the experience of looking at a painting: the work itself, the viewer and the location of the viewing. Generally speaking, the main focus of attention is on the first of these, as filtered through the second. The environment gets less attention, but of course it makes a big difference to the reception of the work – a difference which is in turn influenced by the work and the viewer: some paintings are less able than others to assert themselves within a challenging context, and some people are relatively immune to where a work is hung; provided they can see it, they are good at isolating the item of primary interest from its surroundings. Others are highly sensitive to the context – that’s part of the explanation for many people finding art fairs a negative viewing environment.  I suspect I’m at the relatively insensitive end of that scale, but all the same I was struck by how the Royal Academy presented plenty of great paintings in its survey Abstract Expressionism without the whole experience feeling as good as it could have done. I wasn’t alone.  Adrian Searle’s verdict in The Guardian was fairly typical, complaining of “deadening juxtapositions and clunky sightlines”. Matthew Collings, in the Evening Standard, said it was “a mess”. I was interested to see how the Guggenheim Bilbao would compare, and whether the chance to make such a direct comparison would lead me to reappraise my self-analysis.  

The venues hosted a materially similar, though not identical, show. Bilbao had fewer works (130 vs. 160), with around 70 London works not travelling, and 20 added, principally from the Guggenheim’s own collection. The most notable gain was one of the two biggest paintings Rothko made, and the most noticeable losses were Pollock’s Blue Poles, three de Kooning ‘women’ and a mid-period Guston (with the curious effect that Bilbao gave us Guston before and after Abstract Expressionism, but not during it). The show’s overwhelming strength remained: this, the first full scale European survey of the phenomenon (curator David Anfam’s preferred term) since 1959, brought together a stunning and representative range of high quality work. The dedication required to achieve such a rich result that can be gauged from the fact that the City of Denver, which owns the contents of the Clyfford Still Museum, had to enact a change of law to allow a group of Stills to travel. The main problem with the content was also constant: there was a comparatively cursory representation of women, despite Anfam stating in the catalogue that “presenting Ab Ex as a male preserve is a clanger that should be silenced for good”.   Actions speak louder: while it’s understandable that the show made no attempt to disrupt the critical consensus around who the ‘big four’ pioneers should be – the decidedly male Still, Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko –  it also failed to allow any women into the wider group that was given substantial space: Gorky, Kline, Newman, Reinhardt, Motherwell, and sculptor David Smith. True, Clement Greenberg mentioned Joan Mitchell only once in his 1,269 pages of critical writings, but she was in the seminal 1951 ‘Ninth Street Art Exhibition’ and is now widely acclaimed. She should have been on a par with those six.  Krasner also deserved more, to suggest the mutual inter-influence of her and Pollock; if Frankenthaler is classified as part of the phenomenon, she should have had more than one picture when, say, Sam Francis had four; among the more marginal artists, Helen Sobell was included but Elaine de Kooning was absent, as was Hedda Sterne, the only woman to appear in the group portrait of ‘The Irascibles’, shot for Time-Life in 1951.

Anyway, treating the content as similar – and, quibbles aside, wonderful – the main presentational issues to consider might be categorised as: the underlying building; its more temporary characteristics (e.g. wall colour, lighting); the overall sequencing; and the room-by-room arrangement, e.g. the density of hang and the proximities and connections achieved.

Installation shot, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London

Installation shot, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London

The main RA spaces are perfectly adequate for painting at scale, as demonstrated by such shows as A New Spirit in Painting (1981), Philip Guston (2004) and Anselm Kiefer (2014), all of which did justice to their subjects. The total space for the Bilbao show was slightly less, but the Guggenheim is an architectural masterpiece, recently built with its function in mind. Its rooms are more consistently sized, and most are bigger. That, combined with the paintings being fewer, gave the work more room to breathe. Most rooms at the Royal Academy simply had too much in them to display the work at its best. The sightlines between the Guggenheim’s galleries are also superior, notably when Rothko's huge red and yellow Untitled, 1952-53, hovers into view from three galleries distant. Not surprisingly, then, the comparison of underlying built structures favoured Bilbao.

So did the subsidiary features. The Guggenheim is cleaner cut, naturally closer to the white cube which suits this work. The lighting is better. The labelling is less intrusive, as well as easier to read, in fair sized type on the ankle-height platforms which were installed – less awkwardly than the RA’s ropes - to indicate a suitable distance from the works.

The separation and combination of works also operated more sympathetically in Spain. David Smith's sculptures felt cramped at the Royal Academy (where, as Matthew Collings put it, they were ‘scattered about the exhibition like pot plants’), and their graphic shapes were disturbed by the background paintings. In Bilbao, more of Smith’s work stood separately, or were given enough blank wall space as background to allow for their separation from the paintings. Newman and Reinhardt shared a room, as they did in London, but here they had the space not to compete with each other, and Newman's sculpture didn't get in the way of his own paintings as it did in London. Clifford Still’s was the one triumphant room in London, and despite the improved quality of everything else, it remained the outstanding installation in Bilbao, although it operated quite differently by playing his vast craggy verticals against a curved room.

Both versions started with early works by the soon-to-be Abstract Expressionists, which worked well. London had two themed rooms: ‘Colour and Gesture’ and ‘Violent Mark’, which were less persuasive, and they weren’t reprised in Bilbao. Both concluded with a somewhat mysterious room of 'late works' which left it unclear whether that meant late in the artist's biography (a Baziotes from 1961, but then he died the next year), late in the history of abstract Expressionism (a figurative Guston from 1976) or something else entirely – a Motherwell from 1949 and a Sam Francis from 1952 fitted neither category. Yet both versions omitted the most obvious distinctively abstract late style of all - that of de Kooning during the 1980s. That last room, though, did work visually at the Guggenheim, but not in London, where it wasn’t possible to take in the bigger paintings from all the optimum distances.

I also preferred the sequencing and grouping in Spain. Bilbao gave Kline a room of his own, instead of mixing him in with ‘Violent Mark’. It was a triumph. Fewer Pollocks were present, suiting a large but more mixed room. Krasner’s The Eye is the First Circle, 1960 was rather diminished by a surrounding of pure Pollock in London: it was more at home in Bilbao, presented alongside Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 126, 1965-75 as two format-echoing responses on the wall opposite to Pollock’s six-metre-wide Mural, 1943. A crowded gallery of photographic works disrupted the flow of the Royal Academy show. At the Guggenheim it was smaller and set aside from the main part of the exhibition, which worked much better. 

In all respects, then, Bilbao was superior to London, and what had seemed something of a missed opportunity to make the most of the material proved to be a chance taken after all. I also have to conclude that the manner of display made more difference to me than I might have predicted. The viewer, the location and the work are all important, of course, but perhaps the spread of significance across the three factors is more even than I had previously supposed. It’s made me suspect that, when you have no direct comparison to make, environmental factors may be at work more than you realise in your other judgements.  

Installation shot, courtesy Museo Guggenheim Bilbao

Installation shot, courtesy Museo Guggenheim Bilbao

Installation shot, courtesy Museo Guggenheim Bilbao

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943  Oil and casein on canvas  243.2 x 603.2 cm  The University of Iowa Museum of Art. Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959.6  © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2016   

Jackson Pollock,  Male and Female, 1942–43 Oil on canvas 186.1 x 124.3 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Mr and Mrs H. Gates Lloyd, 1974 Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation VEGAP, Bilbao, 2016  

Willem de Kooning, Untitled, ca. 1939  Oil on paper mounted on canvas 95.8 x 73.7 cm  Private collection.  © The Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York /VEGAP, Bilbao, 2016  

Installation shot, courtesy Museo Guggenheim Bilbao