Abstract Expressionist New York, Museum of Modern Art, New York

More than 60 years after Jackson Pollock first threw a canvas on the floor and bombarded it with flying paint, you might think that the Museum of Modern Art would use the occasion of a major survey, drawn from its own luxuriant collection, to revisit the story of abstract expressionism – to reassess the revolution’s undervalued women, for example, or to demystify its swaggering chieftains. Yet MoMA retells the same saga it has been tending for most of its history: the boys’ club of ab-ex pioneers – Jackson, Mark, Willem, Philip, Franz and Robert – tapped into their own cyclonic psyches and dragged the centre of the art world to New York.

The show creates a pile-up of paradoxes. Ab ex swallowed the mainstream, yet even now, new generations of puzzled viewers gaze on its swirls and patches and chant the old refrain: “I could do that.” The painters shrugged off Europe’s prejudices and conventions, but wound up enforcing their own rigid orthodoxies. And an exhibition of vast scope and broad ambition becomes an anthology of limitations.

What other museum could assemble, without a single loan, a mini-retrospective of Pollock that maps the full trajectory of his genius, from the congested early canvases to the shimmering masterpieces to the sad products of his decline? What other museum could, at the same time, convene a hall full of radiant Rothkos, a suite of Barnett Newman’s monastic “zips”, a sextet of Motherwells, and so on and so on. And yet, amid all these majestic trappings, one feels a dash of disappointment, an inkling of stories untold and of tangled threads begging to be untwined.

Curator Ann Temkin trots out all the crowd pleasers – not just those on perpetual view, like Pollock’s monumental dripscape “1A” and De Kooning’s fearsomely voluptuous “Woman I”, but also works by all the other anointed leaders. It’s like a version of Irving Sandler’s canonical 1970 text, The Triumph of American Painting, brought to life. All the good old boys together again, squabbling about the universality, spirituality and meaning of art just as they did at the Cedar Tavern or The Club. Temkin doesn’t challenge the story or add much to it; she merely retells the tale as it has been handed down from one curator to another in MoMA’s tribal halls.

Temkin’s interpretation of this grand narrative is, of course, constrained by the limitations of the collection itself and the odd biases of past generations of donors, trustees and curators. De Kooning, unpopular with the museum’s leadership, is all but absent, unfairly skewing the balance towards Pollock. And except for Lee Krasner, women don’t rate: only one work each by Helen Frankenthaler, Hedda Sterne, Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell stand in for decades of achievement. The female gap is particularly puzzling since the museum owns at least a few other terrific works by female abstractionists. Frankenthaler’s “Jacob’s Ladder”, for instance, is glaringly and perplexingly absent.

Conversely, the presence of so many pictures by a single artist doesn’t always boost his standing. Take the abundance of Newman’s austere, mural-sized monochromatic pieces, bisected by the vertical band he nicknamed the “zip”. Newman reached his breakthrough in 1948 when he ran a band of masking tape from top to bottom of a single canvas, applied paint to the raised wedge, and solemnly dubbed the result “Onement”. For 22 years, he repeated that configuration, with minor alterations in method and scale, in every canvas he completed. One or two might have created a hankering for a little more onement; eight leave viewers begging for less.

The Newman room epitomises a depressing pattern among the first generation of abstract expressionists. They struggled for a way to express the existential condition of mankind (the inner life of womankind being pretty much irrelevant to that crowd). Each endured failed experiments and imitation: Pollock emulated the Mexican muralists and Picasso; Motherwell mimicked the French surrealists; Baziotes copied Miró. But by the late 1940s, all had their signature styles, and MoMA’s exhibition documents both the pop-pop of epiphanies and how little each artist evolved after experiencing one.

Consider Rothko: his 1944 work “Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea” shows him in thrall to surrealists such as Roberto Matta. Its two puppets teeter at the edge of a brown horizon, evoking life but not people. He said that the forms “have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognises the principle and passion of organisms”. By 1948, Rothko had translated these complex slivers of vitality into a series of shimmering, amorphous slabs that jostled for space on the canvas. A year later, he arrived at his trademark arrangement: stacked blobs in vibrant colours, floating in the space that breathes around them. Rothko never varied his basic format, and he was still stuck playing with his coloured blocks in 1970, the year of his suicide. His palette darkened in tandem with his mood, but a Rothko never looks like anything other than a Rothko.

Each of these artists developed a dramatic gesture that eventually turned into a gimmick. Franz Kline slashed thick black strokes across every white ground, and the MoMA exhibition contains no fewer than four of these repetitive exercises. For 15 years, Adolph Gottlieb was consumed with “Pictographs”, consisting of a grid of compartments, each one stuffed with one of several recurring motifs. By 1956, he had tired of the lattice arrangement, and so he settled on a new obsession: the “Bursts”, which pair a contained ovular form in the top half of the canvas with dense brushstrokes below. MoMA offers only one “Burst”, which, far from seeming skimpy, preserves the explosive impact of a fresh idea.

Pollock alone seemed dissatisfied with a single, autograph style. In “One: Number 31” (1950) diaphanous ribbons of paint float against an all-white ground. Air flows in and around them, and the whole picture exhales. At other times, a warring desire to fill every last millimetre holds sway. He splashed layer upon layer of pigment on “White Light” (1954), for instance, clogging the surface with dense, congealed matter. He also veered feverishly from figuration to abstraction and back again; “Easter and the Totem”, painted only a year before “White Light”, contains broad pink and flesh-toned areas arousing subliminal associations with the human form.

The text panels duly rehearse the rhetoric of artists intoxicated with their own soulfulness. Even as he kept cranking out “zips”, Newman expressed the hope “that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time his connection to others”. Abstract expressionists invoked the sublime, tragedy and the all-encompassing void, but they wielded the decorator’s tools. The accumulation of patterns and luscious colours on MoMA’s walls suggests that Newman and his fellow high priests were compensating for a shameful truth that lurked on the surface of those awesome depths: their paintings are really quite pretty. www.moma.org

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