Abstract Critical

David Anfam on Abstract Expressionism

Written by David Anfam, Sam Cornish

Installation view, 'Re-View: Onnasch Collection', Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row and Piccadilly, 2013. Courtesy the artists and estates, Onnasch Collection and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

Installation view, ‘Re-View: Onnasch Collection’, Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row and Piccadilly, 2013. Courtesy the artists and estates, Onnasch Collection and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

In relation to the Hauser & Wirth exhibition ‘Re-View: Onnacsch Collection’ David Anfam moderated a panel discussion ‘The Presence of Abstract Expressionism in Museum Collections in the UK’, at the Royal Geological Society on the 28th of November. On the panel were Norman Rosenthal, Jeremy Lewison and Richard Calvocoressi. abstract critical sent Anfam a few questions afterward.

Sam Cornish: Abstract Expressionism was a diverse set of impulses rather than a limited style. What would you say were its central characteristics?

David Anfam: Right. Instead of thinking of Ab Ex (as I always call it for short) as having a fixed “center”, it makes more sense to regard this impossibly manifold phenomenon as a shifting set of positions around a core that will always remain elusive. The closest one can come to defining such a crux is that the artists sought to figure states of consciousness. This was what I wrote in 1990 and I still feel the same way today, even if you want to translate the idea into academe-speak and call it, for example, “subjectivity.” Rothko put it bluntly—some might even say naively—when he spoke about expressing “basic human emotions… tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” For Pollock, consciousness was figured in terms of what amounts to an abstract (more or less) script, a literal and metaphorical outpouring of the self and its energies in terms of skeins of paint, and so forth. Even a maverick such as Ad Reinhardt upholds this notion, albeit from an oppositional stance, by striving to purge his work of any traces of the hand or, as it were, the heart. What I cannot tolerate is the old, clichéd presentation of Ab Ex as consisting of color-field painters on the one hand, with gesturalists or action painters on the other. It’s shallow, formalist, featured in at least one influential study of the “movement” and should be put to rest for good.

SC: Who was the most significant British artist affected by Abstract Expressionism or its progeny? Why?

DA: A tricky question, because I immediately think of figures such as Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, John Hoyland and perhaps Alan Davie. Yet are they still so significant? Good painters though they all were, I rather doubt it. Then again, William Scott springs to mind. Although Scott always followed his own path, there is a largeness of feeling and a depth of colorism to his vision that seems to breathe the spirit, rather than the letter, of Ab Ex. Furthermore, Tony Caro’s debt to David Smith has made him the most major Brit to have been affected by Ab Ex. Also, I like to ask myself a counter-intuitive question. In short, if Francis Bacon had been born in New York and worked there, would we count him as an Abstract Expressionist? Very probably, I think—that is, sort of a transatlantic Willem de Kooning, a master of angst and the loaded brush.

SC: Who do you think is the ‘minor’ Abstract Expressionist painter most worthy of re-appraisal? Why?

DA: Arguably Richard Pousette-Dart. By the early 1940s Pousette-Dart’s art was as innovative as Pollock’s. In fact, a composition such as his Symphony No.1, The Transcendental (1941-42), which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was ahead of Pollock in its grand size and fierce primitivist imagery. In this respect, it was closer to what Clyfford Still had already achieved—“working out West, and alone”, as Rothko put it—by that date. Subsequently, throughout the 1950s Pousette-Dart continued to make many very strong paintings. In his final decades, when he could be somewhat repetitive, he still remained capable of creating incandescent, mystical canvases such as Time is the Mind of Space, Space is the Body of Time (1982). When I included this big triptych in my show Abstract Expressionism—A World Elsewhere, which inaugurated the Haunch of Venison gallery in New York at Rockefeller Center in 2008—it ranked up there with any of the Ab Ex artists’ later work. Yet I would bet that most people in the UK have never even heard of Pousette-Dart.

Installation view, 'Re-View: Onnasch Collection', Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row and Piccadilly, 2013. Courtesy the artists and estates, Onnasch Collection and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

Installation view, ‘Re-View: Onnasch Collection’, Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row and Piccadilly, 2013. Courtesy the artists and estates, Onnasch Collection and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

SC: Near the end of the discussion you suggested that the success of Clyfford Still’s painting stemmed from the fact he could draw (to something like the standard which one would be trained to at the Slade in the 30s); whereas Rothko and Pollock depended upon finding a mode of expression which transcended their inability to draw.

I thought this a strange assertion: first because the drawing in a mature Still seems to me to consist mainly of broadly dividing the canvas, and the placement of ‘incidents’ within these divisions (neither of which seem to directly relate to an academic training); and second because it seems to overlook the extent to which Pollock’s work, both before and after his ‘breakthrough’, is intimately connected to a great facility for drawing. 

Could you explain why you think Still’s early drawing was of such importance to his later work?

DA: If you look closely at Still’s mature pictorial abstractions—and to study them in their breadth and depth you have to go to Buffalo or, most preferably, Denver—you will see that he was capable of extremely meticulously draftsmanship rendered, unusually, with the palette knife. Furthermore, the “drawing” in these paintings lies in Still’s supreme command of how to handle edges. Still crafted the peripheries of his shapes with an unerring precision—it is these contours that bring the fields of color to life, making them bite into the space of the canvases. He paid the same careful attention to the “life lines”, that is, the incisive verticals, which often soar or plunge through the heights and depths of his compositions. The source for these graphic effects lies in Still’s much earlier, representational output. There, especially in his myriad drawings, pastels, lithographs and oils on paper, you can trace how Still honed his skills as a draftsman. In turn, it was this figurative basis that enabled Still to inject such variety into his subsequent abstractions. By no coincidence, Still held Ingres in high regard: there are some little cut-out reproductions of the Frenchman’s drawings scattered among the pages of Still’s books. Ingres’s maxim that “drawing is the probity of art” could almost be Still’s as well. By contrast, I’m not suggesting that Pollock lacked any facility as a draftsman—merely that it flourished most memorably once he had left behind figuration per se. Nor is there anything in Pollock’s oeuvre to quite match Still’s tremendous body of figurative and semi-representational work from the 1920s through the 1940s.

SC: Recently there have been a number of exhibitions which take a broader, international look at the abstraction that came out of the forties and fifties, both Continental European and beyond (such as: Art of Another Kind at the Guggenheim; the interest in Gutai; the increased visibility in London of artists such as Burri, Hantai, Soulages, Tapies). 

Do you think an awareness of this context has the effect of making Abstract Expressionism seem an international phenomenon or are its unique (or perhaps ‘American’) characteristics highlighted by contrast?

DA: Yes, these exhibitions have helped to contextualize American Ab Ex. I remember a very good one called Le Grande Geste, curated by Kay Heymer, a few years ago at the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf. Several late canvases by Wols in particular came across as notably impressive. On the whole, I think the comparisons between American Ab Ex and what was happening in Europe and the East tend to show that Ab Ex was at once ahead of its time during the late 1940s and early ‘50s yet also how the Europeans and Japanese went their own distinctive way. For example, Tapiès does sometimes put me in mind of Motherwell, and vice-versa. But the comparison diminishes neither artist. If anything, it actually amplifies the singularity of each.

SC: You ended the talk by suggesting art history can be divided into BAE and AAE. Do you think Abstract Expressionism is a still a potent force amongst practicing artists?

DA: Absolutely. Ab Ex was so seminal that even now artists are still reckoning with it in one sense or another. Whether it be Europeans such as Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer or the younger Americans like David Reed and Mark Grotjahn (who, incidentally, is fascinated by Still’s work), Ab Ex continues to cast a long shadow. Like Cubism and Pop, you simply cannot write the history of twentieth-century art and, ergo, that of our own age, without it.

Re-View: Onnasch Collection is open until the 14th of December.




  1. Matt said…

    CAP, of course New York didn’t invent Abstraction, or Expressionism, because New York is a city. The use of the word “expressionism” in Abstract Expressionism was not meant as a direct reference to the likes of Kirchner and gang. I don’t think anyone, or any group of people, can claim to be the sole originators of any artistic breakthrough, being that art is a continuation and requires a build up. Also, I’m not sure anyone takes a “New York-centric” view of art history, since art history goes well back into the past, and American art history is arguably still in its youth. BUT during that time period, the New York scene did end up having an explosive impact. Look at contemporary abstract painting; we are still dealing with these painters and the language of their marks.

  2. David Horvath said…

    Hi. Thanks for the heads up on Richard Pousette-Dart…home work to be done on this fella..me thinks! His work so reminds me of my practice…my singularity feels a little more amplified..)) Kind regards davidhorvathartist.co.uk (Industrial Weather)

  3. Patrick Jones said…

    David Anfam has done a fantastic job in Denver with re-igniting Stills importance in the artistic ferminant.With respect the it is disappointing then to hear him reassert that Heron ,Hoyland and Davie were only good painters.Later in the article ,we are told Kapoor and Keifer,presumably truly influential artists, are still absorbing Ab Ex.This opinion, that being a painter is marginal, is an example of the scholarly bias which makes being a world class artist here in England such an uphill struggle.

  4. CAP said…

    Ab-Ex is overrated.

    • Sam said…

      care to expand?

      • CAP said…

        It would take too long Sam. But put it this way – New York didn’t invent Abstract painting, it didn’t invent Expressionism, it didn’t even invent large-scale abstract painting. It’s many debts flow back to European pre-war painting, especially the spontaneous, bio-morphic Surrealism of Miro and Masson. To pretend that post-war European painting was so influenced by Pollock or de Kooning I think is to take a very New York-centric view of art history. Sure they recognised Ab-Ex painters as fellow travellers, but they already had their own ideas about gesture, chance, field composition or structure and particularly notational or calligraphic sources.