Abstract Expressionism at Royal Academy of Arts – Natural Artworks, Filtered Experiences

The Abstract Expressionism exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts (RA) is probably on the list of every art critic or art enthusiast as a ‘must see’ exhibition since it opened on the 24th of September. I guess it is the collective energy this exhibition holds one of the main reasons for its popularity – it is the first major Abstract Expressionism exhibit in the UK since 1959 that gathers more than 150 works, by both the most famous and lesser-known artists of the movement in one space. 

As a final-year university student perplexed by the amount of assignments I have, unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to visit this exhibition in the first few weeks of its opening. But since I really wanted to see it, last Saturday I forced myself to put that stress and cup of coffee aside and yay, I was finally there!

The huge, geometric sculptures of David Smith greeted me when I entered to the RA courtyard, which was already impressive enough even without any work of art. What affected me most about these sculptures were the strong connotations they made to me, of critical yet usually unpleasant concepts such as oppression, insurgence and death– perhaps due to their highly mechanical structure, their large scale or another element that I couldn’t point out for sure – but the profound and even overwhelming effect started to reveal itself at that point, as if hinting what was awaiting me inside. 

Curious and excited, I started discovering what the galleries inside had to offer. Some featured the works of different artists who had a similar approach or common traits in their works together, such as the ‘Darkness Visible’ gallery in which the works by painters like Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston, which all had unique styles and themes they explored yet carried a gloomier, heavier air that unified them, were displayed together. 

Sculptures featured heavily in the exhibition, with many small-scale works of David Smith but also of artists such as Barnett Newman and Louise Nevelson in a dialogue with the paintings, enhancing the powerful atmosphere with their existence in the centre. The exhibition wasn’t limited to only paintings and sculptures, there was also a gallery displaying the works on paper and photography by artists like Franz Kline and Aaron Siskind, which made it interesting to see the reflection of the movement in photography and also the unique style of the painters in small drawings rather than in large canvases. 

However, the galleries devoted to specific artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, the ‘key players’ of the movement as the co-curator of the exhibition David Anfam explains in the audio guide, were the most striking.

These galleries, which had a more spacious atmosphere and even a different wall colour, featured some of most extraordinary, monumental and powerful works of art that I have ever seen. They certainly had different styles, and different kinds of power, but almost all of them just simply had that hypnotizing aura. While looking at Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’, one of his most famous drip paintings, made me think of an almost savage sense of freedom and the complexity of the inner self with its chaotic charm; Clyfford Still’s painting ‘PH 247’, one very different from that, made me feel like almost in a different dimension with its strong stillness, vastness and depth. 

Feeling a bit overwhelmed and dazed, when I arrived to the last gallery of the exhibition where the later work of some artists of the movement was displayed, I overheard the conversation of two girls, discussing which photo to post on Instagram. I wasn’t sure if these photos were from the exhibition or not, but I suddenly realized that because of the profound effect the experience had on me, I had forgotten to take any photos like I usually would; as a ‘digital native’ who is used to ‘capturing the moment’ and Instagramming it on pretty much every occasion.

So even though I was at the last gallery and was planning to leave soon, after this I got curious about what other people were doing, as from focusing on the works I couldn’t pay much attention. Thus I decided to go back and observe people instead of the artworks. 

Well, not everyone was taking photos – but most people were. Some people were standing/sitting in front of the works and observing them carefully, but in general most people were on their phones, trying to take photos of the works, although I realized it was actually not allowed as the staff were constantly warning them – but it was clear that it wasn’t really working.

Of course I couldn’t be sure how many of them were posting the photos they took on social media, particularly on Instagram as it is considered as the main platform used for sharing visual content. As you could guess, curiosity got the best of me again and I decided to check the public photos shared with #abstractexpressionism, with Royal Academy of Arts added as the location on Instagram. 

The result wasn’t surprising. There were a huge number of photos, and it was continuing to increase as I kept checking. Even though I couldn’t know for sure which of those photos belonged to the specific group of people that were there at that time, but I got the idea in my mind confirmed – people were taking and posting photos of the exhibition to social media constantly, no matter if it was allowed or not. 

This is probably something that you would expect too, as these days it has become almost as common as the act of going to an exhibition itself. In fact, it has become so common that in 2015, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has created a campaign called #startdrawing to encourage visitors to draw sketches of the artworks, instead of focusing on taking photos of them. 

As I mentioned, although I’m not proud this is something that I usually tend to do as well, mostly out of habit or because of the urge to share what I encounter with the people I know, and feel somehow connected or up to date. But this time I didn’t, as I got so carried away by the paintings, it didn’t even occur to me. 

After I left the exhibition and came home, I started wondering: How is our habit, or even obsession, with capturing and sharing what we see or do on social media, affecting our actual experience of it, in this case, of art? Yes, it indeed helps us to express our taste, easily show the artworks that we like and feel up to date, but what about the other side of the coin? Apart from those functions, does it also impede our perception of the present moment and experience of an artwork, reduce its meaning and value to the number of ‘likes’ it gets or how good its filter is? Can a filtered, edited version of an artwork convey the same feelings and thoughts it gives to us when we look at it in person? 

In this particular exhibition, if I didn’t forget about my phone and focused on capturing and sharing the paintings instead of just simply observing them and immersing myself in them, would the experience be as compelling as it was? 

With my mind still full of these questions, I come to an end in my writing. I think to myself, maybe next time before deciding to have an experience that holds the power to make us forget about the world at least for a couple of hours and blow our mind, such as going to see an exhibition as mesmerizing as Abstract Expressionism at the RA, we should try and manage to put our phones in our pocket, forget about the likes and comments for a while, and just, look.

This review has been featured on Collective (2016) – our student publication at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.

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