The Jewish Presence: Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy

This Autumn, a major exploration of Abstract Expressionism, the art movement that made New York the capital of the art world in the 1940s and 1950s, is on show at the Royal Academy. The first exhibition in this country to focus on this group of artists since 1959 will include works by a number of Jewish artists. Jews were without doubt disproportionately represented in the movement, not only as artists but also as the intellectuals and critics who wrote about the work. The best-known artists include Mark Rothko, born Markus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia in 1903 and Barnett Newman, born in New York City in 1905 to recent immigrants from Poland. Other Jewish artists who formed part of the movement include Philip Guston and Adolph Gottlieb, whose work is included, and Morris Louis and Jules Olitski, whose work is not.

The exhibition also includes the work of less well-known Abstract Expressionists, among them four women, three of them Jewish, two of whom, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, were married to much better-known non-Jewish artists from the movement, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell respectively. The third is sculptor Louise Nevelson. There will also be works by the so-called Abstract Expressionist photographers, including the work of Aaron Siskind, who was fascinated by textures, details and patterns that he saw, which he viewed as expressing his state of mind.

The reputation of the artists was enhanced by two rival art critics and intellectuals, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Indeed, it was these two who came up with the idea that the artists’ work could be divided into two subsections, namely “action painting” exemplified by Jackson Pollock and promoted by Rosenberg and the “colour field” painting of Rothko and Newman, a term coined by Greenberg. This exhibition will question the traditional labelling of Abstract Expressionism into these two categories and will instead suggest that the movement was much more diverse than previously imagined.

So is there any Jewish dimension to the art? Barnett Newman’s iconic “zip” paintings reference the Creation story: the zip, or vertical strip that bisects the canvas makes a gesture of separation in a visual equivalent of the moment that heaven was separated from earth. Whilst Newman acknowledged his debt to Kabbalistic writings, Rothko did not explain his work but many have found a spiritual force in them. Lee Krasner produced a series entitled “Little Images” which seem to have calligraphic influence. Her biographer Gail Levin has commented that Krasner “adored calligraphic complexity, perhaps as a result of her childhood study of Hebrew”. Adolph Gottlieb produced a number of works for synagogues including a beautiful Torah ark curtain and stained glass windows whilst Jules Olitski and Morris Louis both made works referring to the Holocaust.

Abstract Expressionism is showing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from 24 September 2016 to 2 January 2017.

Subscribe to read more from the 2016 Autumn issue of Jewish Quarterly.

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