Text and pictures by – VIRGINIA STAGNI

English translation byJULIA PERRY


24-09-2013 – Royal Palace, Milano


It opened to the public today at 9.30am, on a beautifully sunny autumn day, the exhibition entitled “Pollock and the Irascibles, the New York School” and Revolart had the pleasure of being among the first to discover the exhibition which turned out to be interesting as well as beautiful. The exhibit is part of the “Autunno americano” series of events, meaning, “The American Autumn”, set up in the Lombard city of Milan on occasion of the Year of Italian Culture in the United States.

This showcase was born thanks to Milan’s collaboration with the Whitney Museum of New York that gave Milan 49 works of art. It is the third thriving partnership with the American museum after the exhibition on “American Art” in 2002 and “Hopper’s Retrospective” in 2009.

Let’s try to get a bigger picture of the showcase and of the group that sets Pollock as their most prominent leader.

The term “irascible” was coined in 1946 by ‘Herald Tribune (the origin of the name can not but remind us of that of the Impressionists) in order to identify, not a movement, but a group of artists united by their passion for similar, yet unique, art. It’s the understanding between the Abstract Expressionism that clashes with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its canons, not to be compared to current ideals (and even this can not but remind us of the ostracism of the Impressionists by Paris Salon). In protest, on May 20th 1950, the “irate” leaders wrote a letter to the museum and its curators: the heated and annoyed tone of the text served as a head for the nickname that was given to this group of artists. Another way to label this group and get an idea of who they are is by taking a look at the snapshot taken of the fifteen so called Irascibles, provocatively dressed as bankers, taken by Nina Leen in 1951 and published in Life magazine.

Among the prominent members of the group there stand: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, William Bazotes, and a very interesting figure, Lenore Krasner, who changed her name to Lee in order to fit into a predominantly macho environment. Once she became Pollock’s life companion, she supported him not only artistically but also emotionally throughout his existence.

The impetuous and restless beauty of these artists, who have had the ability to go above and beyond, to put themselves and have themselves put under questioning, opening new doors to world art, promotes the New York “home of the new”, the fresh, the young, the apple having finally matured and ready to be tasted, culturally speaking, by humanity. All of this, however, is cause of a sudden change on the European front: Paris, Milan, London, have always been the capitals of the new movements that are now becoming wrinkled and enveloped by old age.

This group of young Americans has learned to change the image and language of painting. With great critical thinking skills, these artists realized that in the US, something of great essence was missing: a genuinely creative foundation. Americans were still using European modernism as inspiration (the great source of inspiration was after all, Picasso) but lacked a purely American artistic singularity when it came to art and abstract expressionism may have very well been the missing piece to the puzzle.

Pollock was the one to “break the ice” on the birth of the relationship between the world and abstract expressionism. His always lit cigarette, his sullen stare, bitter, confused, restless, damned: words that became the emblem of his artistic movement. Symbolic were also his hands, his body, and his clothes (in fact, the interview held with the curator, Luca Beatrice, took place in a clothing store to pay tribute to Pollock’s tethered jeans that became a fad in the 90s). Pollock painted en plein air but did so in a completely different way: his canvas was no longer on a tripod but instead, on the ground, almost as if that way, by contact with the earth, the painting had a way of drawing its vital energy. Pollock, whose performances are projected on screens across various movie theaters, never looked at the nature surrounding him and after setting down his canvas would simply paint: with his feelings, his perceptions, and his spirit.


Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock’s biggest supporter, in 1943, gave him the chance to have a personal exhibition filled with his artwork: from that year on, he was universally recognized as the “first true American artist.”

Discovering of an artistic calling is interesting for any artist, from embryo until the apex of expression as an artist is reached. His first drawings, taken from his early on sketches, show the artist as still being tied to real world figures. They’re hybrid representations that express a wide range of influences: Pollock’s artistic beginning mixes surrealism, Picasso, Mexican moralism, and art within the tradition and philosophy of the Native American peoples whom he met in his youth, with their simple and reduced forms. Already in these early life sketches an unsteady and restless pencil stroke can be seen. A reference to the primordial painting can also be seen, the same which inspired Picasso, his mentor, back in his days. Not to come of shock, it was one of the major works of the Spanish Guernica to influence Pollock, who saw and admired it at the MoMa in New York.

It was from all these currents that Jackson was able to devise a new relationship with painting: not just through the eyes and the hand involved in the process, but through the entire body. It is with the American artist that we have the first example of an action painting.

The works of “Jake the Dripper”, nicknamed in 1956 by Time Magazine, which you can be seen at the Royal Palace in Milan, show compositions that are anything but random. The framework built perfectly: each color is left dripping rhythmically on the canvas (Pollock’s innovative technique, “dripping”) according to a study done analyzing the preciseness and definition that can be traced back by following these famous lines and drops.

He loved large canvases because he loved to go beyond the limits placed by a stand. The movements of the body and the brush along with the wands used by the artist to paint the surface almost acted as extensions of his body onto the canvas. The painting became, through Pollock, music. We were in Elvis Presley’s America, Miles Davis’ America, Marlon Brandon’s and James Dean’s America, but most importantly, what was and is still considered New York’s “Jazz Age”, and as Fitzgerald said: the creative solo (let it be music or painting) is crucial. Put this way, Pollock was a perfect performer and soloist.


A particular installation made inside a room of the exhibition allows us, the viewers, to lie down on a large, circular, couch and watch a video being projected onto the ceiling of the technique used by the New Yorker almost as if we were present beneath his painting, observing him painting to the rhythm of music from underneath the canvas.

In his being an artist, Pollock may also be called the ultimate romantic: his behavior and rebellious lifestyle, as well as unconventional, which cost him his life in 1956, overlapped and came through in his artwork (following the footsteps of a masterpiece like Caravaggio). Ill-tempered and not a huge fan of the public eye and reputation, he only once opened his studio to the press and the public, giving a window into his innovative ways and techniques.

Franz Kline

In his compositions, the reference to reality is obvious, especially at the Big Apple’s architecture with its massive skyscrapers, its bridges, its streets, delineated by dark black marks, sharp and thick placed on a pure white virgin vehement in their presence, the black lines intended to represent the grandeur of the architecture of the American metropolis. In 1943, Kline became friends with Kooning who advised him to project images of his sketches onto the wall: by doing so, the drawings take on more serious and decisive traits. It is these traits that the artist reproduces onto a larger canvas. The choice of colors, black and white, the alpha and omega of the chromatic scale, is due to the specific choice of the artist: it is a reference to the spiritual Zen dimension, the one the painter followed during his lifetime. This polarity allows the two colors, which never mix, to attract each other according to a firmly and tightly woven mesh, to cross accordingly to a study wanting to evoke emotions within the observer.

From the Abstract Expressionism to Color Field and the Monochrome

Starting from the 1950s, a new artistic movement was born in abstract expressionism: Color Field Painting. With it the exclusion of the physical gesture could be seen which was replaced by a pictorial gesture that approached the dematerialization of painting. A few figures that took part in this movement: Hans Hofmann (in the theoretical movement), James Brooks, Helen Frankenthaler and Hedda Sterne (the only woman who appears in the photograph of the Irascibles), the first female figures who manage to emerge in the field, up to Morris Louis and Sam Francis, which blend contemporary designs and minimalist theories. Color Field Painting became a mechanical repetition of gestures that slowly distances itself from the hand of the painter and leaves space for the weakening of a materialistic concentration.

In Germany, in the year 1960, the “Monochrome Malerei” (Monochrome Painting) exhibition was inaugurated. The leading exponents of this movement were Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Newman, one of the most philosophical of the Irascibles, was known for the “zip”, that is, the use of vertical lines overflowing on the canvas. With time he started to adhere more and more to monochrome forms. The spaces between the vertical lines on the painting become thinner with time and “diminish” to leave space for the color that becomes the despot ruler of the canvas. Rothko, on the other hand, the most dignified of the Irascibles: his bright rectangles posed onto large canvases and the artist’s mission, to make the purpose of the painting a moment of contemplation for the viewer. The approach to painting, the color and pictorial space for Rothko is, to all effects, lyrical.


Rothko can be considered the hinge of the Expressionist movement: he joined Pollock’s edgy and restless gestural movements with a conceptually more restless painting technique (given the historical moment, keep in mind that this is all set during the Cold War) of Newman and Rothko himself.




Palazzo Reale – Milan from September 24th until February 16th  2014. Exhibition curated by Luca Beatrice and Carter Foster, produced by Artehemisia Group and 24Ore Cultura – Gruppo24Ore.

I remind you of your next appointment with American culture at the Palazzo Reale: October 24th, with Andy Warhol. Revolart, will be there, and you?

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