It is strange to think that when I first started my art course in the autumn of 2011, people were seriously having debates about whether painting had a future. Of course, in truth, artists had never stopped painting but students seemed to be doing it in rather an apologetic way. I met people who worried that painting pictures of recognisable things was not really contemporary. Equally, abstract art was not seen as the answer either; why that had had its heyday with the Abstract Expressionists and was well and truly over. There was nothing more to say, it was implied. Conceptual art ruled.
I was not convinced. In the summer of 2012 I wrote a post about my disappointment that in one Art and Design Degree Show, there was not a single painting to be seen; it was at the same time as cave paintings were being attributed to Neanderthals and I argued that if painting had been around for approximately 41,000 years it was unlikely to stop any time soon. Just as in the financial markets, at the very point that people are saying that the price of shares or oil, or cotton or houses will never go up again or, conversely, never fall, the change is already happening. It turns out that, four years later, painters of all kinds are doing well and are decidedly less apologetic. More paintings are appearing in degree shows. My friend Jesse Waugh appears to be making headway with his declared movement Pulchrism . A contemporary gallerist told me recently that there was strong demand for paintings with a representational element. So paintings of things or people are now ok.
What about abstract art? Is that thriving too in the art college?. Of course it too has never entirely gone away but has been simmering on the back burner. Thanks to the Abstract Expressionist Exhibition at the Royal Academy, new and young artists could be inspired afresh; I predict that in a reaction to the recent popularity of representational and semi-representational works there will soon be an explosion of new abstract paintings appearing in galleries. Indeed, Cass Art and the Royal Academy have launched a competition for those who make contemporary abstract works inspired by the Abstract Expressionist movement for an exhibition that will take place this November in Islington.
Having visited the exhibition twice I find it hard to believe that artists could not be inspired. It is always interesting to see paintings that one has previously known from reproductions and in this exhibition there were so many -including the drip paintings by Jackson Pollock, extraordinary colour studies by Rothco and the enormous and dramatic works of Clifford Still . What I found particularly fascinating was the way that the RA arranged the exhibition so that you could see the sources and roots of the movement arising from cubism and surrealism, the innovation and energy that was current in the 40s and 50s when the movement loose enough for artists explore very different avenues but at the same time united by some common principles that came to have a political dimension of their own. It was also evident that the later works were less impressive, so that they became almost pastiche on themselves. Enough time has passed now that artists today can feed on that excitement without feeling constrained by the sense that the movement is over.
For entrants in the RA/Cass art competition creating the perfect response will of course be difficult, particularly as the competition limits the size of 2D works to 1 metre on the longest side. Size was certainly a dominant characteristic but then so was colour, so was vigour and in some works so was violence. Abstract Expressionism was a response to the horrors of the period, two devastating world wars, the atomic bomb and the cold war. In this new millennium we have dark days of our own. It will be interesting to see how a new generation of artists use the abstract to express their own emotions about the state of the world.
Abstract Expressionism is running at the Royal Academy until January 2 2017.
The deadline for submissions to the Royal Academy and Cass Art competition is October 16.