Abstraction and the Sublime Level 3: Room 2

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Yacht Approaching the Coast’ c.1840–5
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Yacht Approaching the Coast c.1840–5

This room looks at some of the affinities linking American post-war abstraction and the European tradition of landscape painting.

When American abstract expressionism developed in the 1940s and 1950s, the vigorous style of artists such as Jackson Pollock was matched by a similarly intense but more contemplative approach, characterised by large fields of colour. It was principally associated with Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who both saw their work as capable of generating a profound emotional or spiritual response in the viewer.

In his 1949 text The Sublime is Now Newman argued that the ‘subjective abstraction’ of modern American painting was a contemporary counterpart to the idea of the sublime. For aesthetic theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sublime was related to formlessness, immensity, intense light or darkness, terror, solitude and silence experienced in nature, yet it also offered the solace of transcendence, an art in which one could lose oneself. Such ideas persisted in early twentieth-century landscape painting, especially among the artists associated with expressionism, for whom intense experience emerged in enriched colour. Yet for Newman, a generation later, abstract painting could give viewers this sense of standing alone in front of infinity, without the props of ‘nostalgia, legend, myth’.

Rothko felt a particular kinship with the British painter J.M.W. Turner, whose later landscapes sometimes verge on the abstract, with recognisable forms dissolving into the evocation of light and space. Tate’s collection of Turner was one of the principal reasons for Rothko’s generous donation of the Seagram murals, seen in the adjacent gallery. The Turner painting shown here was included in an exhibition held in New York in 1966, which prompted Rothko to recognise his affinity and joke that the nineteenth-century artist ‘learned a lot from me’.

Curated by Matthew Gale.
Text by Rebecca Penrose.

See also