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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



David Smith Courtyard at the Royal Academy. Photo © David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts
David Evison, the British sculptor, has attended “Abstract Expressionism," the mammoth exhibition focusing primarily on the first generation of American abstract expressionists, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It was curated by David Anfam, independent scholar, and Edith Devaney, of the R.A., and will be on through January 2, 2017. Evison attended with Jennifer Durrant, the British painter who is an RA herself, so they were able to get into the show before the general public. Here is his somewhat staccato, breathless report, with only minor emendations by myself--PH.

“The 2nd room is breathtaking. It is Gorky with 2 early de Koonings influenced by him, but Smith dominates. On a large central base is his 'Song of an Irish Blacksmith' which is a perfect masterpiece as well as being in tune with the paintings. I have never seen a Gorky show having missed the Tate’s as I was not so interested - stupid ! Opinion is now changed.

In the Pollock/ Krasner room, Smith dominates again with 2 modest sized sculptures ' Star Cage’ and ' Hudson river landscape ' I am biased of course but they are the equal of Pollock’s ‘Summertime' if not more original. Then his 'Tanktotem 111' next to Pollock’s 'Mural' wounds it but Pollock’s 'Enchanted Forest' from Peggy Gug. Venice kills his 'Blue Poles' , a forced and crude painting which the silly Australians bought when they could have had ' Lavender Mist ' (I heard this in Australia back in '75.) A smaller version ' No.4' from Yale has the same lilacs and is shown next to 'Phosphoresence ' Wow!. And Krasner could paint a portrait as good as Fantin Latour.

In the rotunda are 7 superb classic Rothkos to calm the senses before entering the jagged gothic canyons of Still in the largest gallery. Still seems to be the favourite of Curator Anfam. His famous mainly all black painting with streaks of lightning was a breakthrough for abstract painting but he never bore down on it. Most are too big, difficult to see with the matte and shiny paint , and confused. Jenny Durrant suggested some drastic cropping. he could not finesse or as Tony Caro used to say " cream it".

The biggest surprise was 'Tower Eight '1957 by Smith and made in silver, a stunning masterwork. The guard told me that it was commissioned by the present owner, now a Foundation, who paid for the silver which I estimate would be worth $15000 or more now.

Then a grey room of lesser mortals but saved by a huge Motherwell Elegy and a Gottlieb 'Burst' ( there is a pictograph in the first gallery- no more) . Late and sad Rothko, weak Guston, Milton Resnick - yuk.

The last painting in the show is a late Guston and is piss weak; only interest for me is that the curatorial motivation is similar to the Johns flag at the entrance to the MOMA Ab Ex show that we visited. In this same room is a giant Joan Mitchell monster 'Salut Tom', made of 4 joined canvases which squeezes Hofmann's ' In Sober Ecstasy' against the door frame , and he has only 2 paintings in the show!

Then a strange room with 6 Newmans of which the Tates 'Adam' and 'Eve' are old favourites, and a damned good sculpture of 2 columns which wounds a Smith forging next to it. Tworkov, Marco Relli and a Motherwell masterpiece make up this jumble. And a great Still but its only 200x100 [about 6½’ x 3¼’] and that seems right for him.

I forget exactly which room the great 'Voltron '63'' is in but it’s a blast. One of those late great works made by kicking the parts together and welding them flat before hoisting it up on the crane to adjust and make it stand. His art fits so well with the paintings and he must have known them very well. Here I totally agree with the curators.

And then de Kooning. There are 2 super early works in Room One and in his own space are great paintings from '49 to '52 and then comes the women looking dated and dusty and the vacuous big brush abstracts followed by his flesh toned abstracts without sensuous flesh or sensitive handling. Thank God there are no GaGa paintings.

For some reason a very early Frankenthaler 1959 is included ,which improved on a 2nd viewing, is together with tasty Tobeys and equally safe Sam Francis who just cannot handle colour and when he forgets it with an almost black painting, he hits it.

Ms Jennifer Durrant RA made some good crops of the Stills but has no time for Hofmann.

I came away feeling that the next generation are better painters, and that my own are up there as well.

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