By Michele Leight
New York, October, 2010 - "Abstract Expressionist New York," currently on view at The Museum of Modern art in New York explores the rise of a mythical art movement in a fresh, new way. Digging deeper into the Museum's legendary holdings, the show mixes icons by giants like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko with works by less well known members of the group that collectively came to be known as Abstract Expressionists, who were part of a broader group called The New York School. All the inconic works of art featured in this show are in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art. The show offers exciting juxtapositions such as bold graphic works by Franz Kline, deliciously subtle "landscapes" by Clyfford Still, and monumental sculptures by David Smith and Louise Nevelson in one gallery; aanother installation of eight paintings by the Mark Rothko is a sublime experience. The electrifying, swirling cosmos illustrated above by Jackson Pollock is among iconic works by the artist in the "Pollock room," that includes his first "drip" painting, "Full Fathom Five." From the first gallery featuring work of the pioneers of the movement, to the "next wave" or generation, of artists, and beyond, the influence of Arshile Gorky is crystal clear. It is also clear that The Museum of Modern art and New York City played a critical role in the movements success. Get ready. It is a roller-coaster ride of art making that changed the course of art history, created right here in our own New York City. If possible, experience these fantastic installatons in person. Photographs cannot do them justice.
Left: "Cubi X," by David Smith, 1963, Stainless steel, 10' 1 3/8 inches by 6' 6 3/4 inches by 24 inches, MoMA, Robert O. Lord Fund; Center left: "Painting Number 2," by Franz Kline, 1954, Oil on canvas, 6' 8 1/2 inches by 8' 9 inches, MoMA, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph H. Hazen and Mr. and Mrs. Francis F. Rosenbaum Funds; Center: "Chief," by Franz Kline, 1950, Oil on canvas, 58 3/8 inches by 6' 1 1/2 inches, MoMA, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David M. Solinger; Central sculpture: "Zig VII," by David Smith, 1963, Painted steel, 8 1/4 by 8' 3 1/2 inches by 7' 1 1/4 inches, MoMA, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund (by exchange) and gift of Candida and Rebecca Smith; paintings at center and right are described where fully visible, in photograph at the top of the story.
"It is important to see the Abstract Expressionists as a whole, both to frame them and to open it up to debate among the public and scholars...to think of this as a critical moment in art history created in this city," said Glenn Lowry, Director of MoMA, at the opening press preview, adding that this was the most comprehensive show ever presented about Abstract Expressionism, drawn entirely from the museums own holdings, and that 75 sculptures and works on paper have not been seen for half a century. For the first time, film is included with works of art.
The exhibition is made possible by HyundaiCard Company (a GE Partner). Major support is also provided by Donald B. Marron and The Dana Foundation; additional funding is provided by Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, David Teiger, and Sally and Wynn Kramarsky.
Sixty years ago the Abstract Expressionist movement put New York City on the Art History map with such impact the vibrations could be felt across America, but even more importantly in Europe, when Paris was the undisputed capital of the international art world at the time. Suddenly, the art establishment was challenged by a group of young New York artists that refused to bow to a past that did not reflect their world and times. Several key members of the group emigrated to America from other countries, notably Arshile Gorky, (Armenia), Mark Rothko (Latvia) and Willem de Kooning, (Holland) bringing with them important humanistic perspectives and cultural influences. Jackson Pollock's "Number 1A," illustrated above, and at the top of the story, was created in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. It was the second painting by the artist to be acquired by The Museum of Modern Art. The first was "She Wolf," that was exhibited at his first solo show, Peggy Guggenheim's "Art of This Century."
Illustrated above is a sampling of the dynamic juxtapositions of works by artists that have now become part of the art-world "establishment," but whose paintings caused public outrage at the time they were first presented in museum or gallery shows. When MoMA purchased its first painting "No. 10" by Mark Rothko in 1950, it was considered so radical a trustee of the museum resigned in protest over its purchase. "Number 10" is the gift of Philip Johnson, and is shown above with "No. 1," painted in 1948, a gift of Mark Rothko, as are "No 5/No24," and No 5/No22," also cited in this story.
Three independent exhibitions are presented under the banner of "Abstract Expressionist New York" in three locations in the Museum, including the entire fourth floor of The Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Painting and Sculpture Galleries; "Rock, Paper, Scissors" is on view in The Paul J. Sachs Drawings Galleries, third floor; and "Ideas, Not Theories: The Club" is on view in The Paul J. Sachs Prints and Illustrated Books Galleries, second floor. An exhibition of films from the collection that are associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement will be featured in The Roy and Niuta Titus theaters in early 2011. "On to Pop" is a fun installation on the forth floor (directly outside "Abstract Expressionist New York") that shows a very different "American-Type" painting (as the influential critic Clement Greenberg described it) that came to be known as Pop Art. Beginning with Jasper Johns "Flag" painted in 1955 that followed a different "trajectory" one that is still innately "American," this show includes icons by Andy Warhol, (including MoMA's famous "Gold Marilyn Monroe,") and works by Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Claes Oldenberg and James Rosenquist and other artists (Reviewed separately)
"The Big Picture" features paintings and sculptures by more than 20 artists in the Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Painting and Sculpture Galleries, in loose but helpful chronology, tracking the development of the Abstract Expressionist movement from its inception. The earliest works by artists that would one day be labeled "Abstract Expressionists" are illustrated here, and give a hint of what was to come. What is fresh about this presentation is that many of the paintings are by less well known artists, and the standard is extremely high, but the iconic works are included, which they must be, because they are awesome. The Abstract Expressionists were influenced by European art, especially Surrealism, and they admired the "greats" like Picasso, Matisse, Miro, and eagerly learned from them. Several artists were of European origin, and had fled Europe in the wake of World War II - like Arshile Gorky, whose influence upon the emerging "group" was profound and important, and deservedly well documented in this show. He was a fantastic draughtsman, which is evident in all his work.
"Garden in Sochi," by Arshile Gorky, 1941, Oil on canvas, 44 1/4 by 62 1/4 inches MoMA, Purchase Fund and gift of Mr, and Mrs, Worfgang S. Schwabacher (by exchange)
This loosely formed group of American artists and European emigrees settled in New York City, and began making art and sharing ideas. The Abstract Expressionists have now become so totally absorbed into the greater context of art history, we sometimes forget that this was a uniquely "New York" art movement. They were truly "one of our own," and most of the artists and sculptors lived and worked in this city. They met regularly at "The Club" on 8th Street, located in Greenwich Village, where they discussed and debated art, music, current events, Eastern Philosophy and the relationship between art and poetry. Phillip Pavia, a sculptor and one of the founding members of The Club said: "The first half of the century belonged to Paris. The next half century will be ours."
Exhibition wall text sets the scene, and offers historical context: "By the middle of the 1940s it had become clear that modern civilization had outdone the ancient in barbaric self-destruction. Recent years had brought unthinkable atrocity: the Holocaust in Europe, vast casualties on battlefields around the world, and the explosion of atomic bombs in Japan. With a grave intensity and sense of responsibility, the Americans who would later become known as Abstract Expressionists set out to make art that would reassert the highest ideals of humankind. Historical circumstances afforded them an advantage: wartime events had made New York City the one place in the world open for the business of modern art. Exiled artists and art dealers filled the city (indeed, this museum), with the most advanced work of the time, and local artists had front-row seats. They were readying themselves to occupy center stage."
"Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture" includes 100 paintings and approximately 60 drawings, photographs, prints and sculptures superbly displayed in the Alfred H. Barr Painting and Sculpture galleries, a fitting tribute to the man who was instrumental in creating a forum for Abstract Expressionism to flourish. The first gallery includes early masterpieces by less famous Abstract Expressionists like William Baziotes, Theodorus Stamos and Richard Pousette-Dart as well as icons like "She Wolf," painted in 1943, the first work by Jackson Pollock purchased by The Museum of Modern Art, several years before his now famous "drip" paintings. Mark Rothko's Surrealist influenced "Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea," painted in 1944, is also on view in this gallery. Both artists would emerge as heavyweights of the Abstract Expressionist movement.
A wonderful early painting by Clifford Still, "1944-N No.2" (1944) appears later in the show in the gallery with sculptures by David Smith and Louise Nevelson, and stunning graphic paintings by Franz Kline - the "next wave" or generation - of Abstract Expressionist artists. As early as 1944 Clyfford Still's signature style is already present, evoking landscape. "1944-N No.2" is illustrated above.
Another pioneer of the movement is Han's Hoffman, whose "Spring," was painted in 1944-45, two years before Jackson Pollock's first "drip" painting, ("Full Fathom Five," 1947). "Spring" incorporates tentative skeins of trailing paint, and faint traces of drips and spatters, as did early paintings by Jackson Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, whose "Untitled," painted in 1949, is included in the "pioneers" gallery, together with paintings by William Baziotes, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Phillip Guston, and Arshile Gorky. It is clear that these artists shared insights, and learned from each other. This free exchange of ideas became the cornerstone of their success.
The earliest paintings allude to primitive man or ancient myth, suspended in an aquatic or geological pre-human world. What is striking at first is the restrained scale of the paintings, compared with the increasing scale of works in the ensuing galleries, and the monumental works of "blockbuster" artists, which have over time become inseparable from the public's idea of an "Abstract Expressionist" painting. This label stuck to them, the artists did not choose it, and they did not like the labels "Action Painting" or "Color Field Painting" either.
It is fascinating to see how some artists reversed course and became more figurative over time, while Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock left figuration behind forever and became the most famous artists of the movement. "Figuration" in the style of De Kooning and other artists that might be labeled "figurative" is relative only to the degree of abstraction surrounding them. All the artworks are essentially "abstract," but, as the wall text cites "the surrounding world did not entirely vanish as a point of reference."
Willem de Kooning, who had made many abstract paintings in the late 1940s, returned to the motif of the woman in the 50s, that became an obsessive subject. The wall text cites: "He wrestled with 'Woman, 1' for months, at times completely abandoning it, probably anticipating the skepticism that would greet a revival of figure painting." De Kooning did meet with success, and his lusciously rendered "women" offer a refreshing and invigorating counterpoint to the abstractions of his colleagues.
The influence of Arshile Gorky intensifies as the show progresses, especially in the work of de Kooning. William Rubin, the legendary MoMA curator, described Arshile Gorky as the "godfather" of the Abstract Expressionists even though stylistically he never surrendered completely to abstraction. His imagery of the 1940s evokes landscape, the body and body parts, and his paintings are underpinned by exquisite drawing. He remained essentially Surrealist, auto-biographical, and prone to unconscious impluses - a trademark of the Surrealists. At the time of his early, tragic death Gorky had many fervent admirers. He committed suicide in 1948. In a letter to the editor of "Art News" in 1949, Willem de Kooning angrily corrected a comment in his publication of his impact on Gorky's work, insisting that the reverse was true: "As long as I keep it with myself I'll be doing all right," de Kooning said of Gorky's influence.
There will be a retrospective of De Koonings work at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in September, 2011.
"The Little Spanish Prison," by Robert Motherwell, 1941-44, Oil on canvas, 27 1/4 by 17 1/8 inches, MoMA, Gift of Ranate Pondold Motherwell
On view are six wonderful paintings by Robert Motherwell, another pioneer of the Abstract Expressionist movement, that show how his paintings evolved over two decades. Illustrated above is a gem by Motherwell, entitled "The Little Spanish Prison," that was painted in 1941-44. Stunning "Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 108," (illustrated), was painted over 20 years later (1965-67), and is far more "figurative" and epically scaled, like other artworks in the galleries. The exhibition wall text at the entrance to "The Big Picture" cites:
"Abstract Expressionism ranks among the movements most closely associated with The Museum of Modern Art. The Museum was directly involved with abstract Expressionism as it unfolded, a relationship it could not have with earlier, European avant-gardes. Most of the artworks on view in this exhibition were made within a mile or two of the Museum, and were exhibited and sold within a few blocks of it. 'Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture,' featuring works selected exclusively from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, follows the movement from its beginnings in the early 1940s to its still-powerful presence in the 1960s. This history is presented in two types of rooms; galleries featuring a mix of artists, organized chronologically, are punctuated by others that focus exclusively on a single artist and trace the arc of a career in one space."
A small "Barnett Newman room" devoted exclusively to the artists work includes iconic, small-scaled, "Onement, 1," dating from 1952, which the artist described as his breakthrough painting. It has a crisp "zip" as the artist called his vertical bands. An earlier work "Two Edges," (1948), also relatively small in scale, incorporates a fuzzy "zip" which by 1950-51 has morphed into Newman's signature minimalist "zip" paintings. Although he is considered an "Abstract Expressionist" his influence on the Minimalists that were to follow was huge. Monumental, 18 ft.-wide ,"Vir Heroicus Sublimus," (1950-51), Newman's largest scaled work at the time of its execution, is shown above with a lone vertical band - wall sculpture - "The Wild," (1950), on the right. All seven paintings in the gallery incorporate his compositional "zip" motif. It is a wonderful gallery to linger in.
After viewing the "clean" painterliness of Newman's canvases, the infinite variety of techniques, materials and approaches deployed by other Abstract Expressionists - especially in their early work - becomes apparent. Nothing could be further from Newman's smooth, painterly surfaces than Lee Krasner's "Untitled" from 1949. Thickly applied paint dispensed directly from the tube forms an impastoed "crust" that is spread evenly in rhythmic and repetitive strokes across every inch of canvas, creating an allover composition. It is uncannily like "Full Fathom Five," (illusrated later in this story), the first "drip" painting created by her husband, Jackson Pollock, who used very different methods to reach his abstract imagery. They lived and painted together, and influenced each others' work. Pollock most often did not paint on his canvases; he laid them down on the floor and incorporated himself "into" his paintings, deploying a brush, stick or can - or whatever tool was handy that served to achieve the affect he was looking for. That was new and exciting. It was considered outrageous, and, as with all innovation, it generated really negative attention at first. But it got him noticed.
Other artists were doing extraordinary work at the same time, such as Bradley Walker Tomlin's fantastic "Number 20," (1949), the gift of Philip Johnson to the Museum, (illustrated below), and Adolph Gottleib's "Man Looking at Woman," (1949). Like Lee Krasner's "Untitled," these paintings distribute their imagery evenly and equally across the canvas, and incorporate hieroglyph-like forms that evoke the spirit of language without being literal about it. Inspired by ancient art and non-Western cultures, Tomlin and Gottlieb shared with Krasner an interest in a new visual vocabulary, evident in the paintings illustrated here, "and the imagery grew from the artist's collective belief that art could be universally understood, transcending differences in time and place..." (Exhibition wall text).
The paintings of Krasner, Gottleib and Tomlin become larger in scale, but their allegiance to the hieroglyph motifs or "allover composition," or both, remain steadfast. Anne Tempkin, The Marie-Jose and Henry Kravis Curator of Paintings and Sculpture and organizer of the show (with colleagues from other departments) writes in the exhibition catalog "Abstract Expresionism at The Museum of Modern Art:
"Sharing a very American dedication to self-reliant individuality, they all pursued resolutely separate routes to a personal idiom. Indeed, the now common assumption that an artist must have a signature style can be traced to this generation - Pollock's drip and Newman's zip had the catchiest names but were by no means the only such strategies." She adds: "The adoption of large formats for abstract painting literally declared the artists' belief that what they were doing was big."
At the opening press preview Ms. Tempkin described the artists as "ping-ponging" among themselves, adding: "Apart from the great hits that history has winnowed it down to, it is a collective that makes art history; where collectively something much greater happens than any individual artist could achieve."
Abstract Expressionism "began" in the mid-1940s and matured by the 1960s. It was well over half a century since the Impressionists - a world famous "group" - had taken Paris by storm. The public was ready for something new - but many were not ready for anything this radical. A trustee of the Museum of Modern Art resigned over the acquisition of the first painting by Rothko, so it was not just the public that had strong objections. It is not overtly biased to think that no other environment but the hothouse of creativity and "vigor" that is New York City could have produced these innovative works of art - not to mention the music of John Cage, and the "mythical" writing of Joseph Campbell, author of "Hero of a Thousand Faces," a treatise on epic tales from diverse cultures that reflects the diversity of New York. Both these innovators made presentations at "The Club" on 8th Street in Greenwich Village where members of the Abstract Expressionist movement met regularly, and became influential far beyond the confines of New York City. Music, poetry and literature was an enormous influence on the artists whose work is visible at the show. Jackson Pollock liked to work to Jazz music.
MoMA was influential in the rise of Abstract Expressionism - part of The New York School - through six exhibitions entitled "Americans" that took place at the museum between 1942 and 1963, cumulatively showcasing the work of nearly one hundred American artists that embodied the newest and brightest trends in recent American art. Curator Dorothy C. Miller organized the shows in several "waves," and four of the exhibitions included works by Abstract Expressionists. The first exhibition, "Fourteen Americans," took place in 1946 (only a year after the end of World War II), and included the work of Arshile Gorky, David Hare, Robert Motherwell and Theodore Rozsach.
The third exhibition in the series (1952), "Fifteen Americans," was the first show that presented a large concentration of Abstract Expressionist artists, with works by William Baziotes, Herbert Ferber, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Bradley Walker Tomlin. As might be expected, this show created quite a ruckus - always a good sign. Presenting a bold new "avant-garde," usually comes with considerable risk and public outrage. As might be expected, at first the American public offered resistance. The radical abstract quality of the artworks in "Fifteen Americans," and the immense size of some of the canvases resulted in unfavorable reviews and letters of protest from American viewers to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the legendary founder and Director of The Museum of Modern Art. To his credit, Barr defended the exhibiton, writing a letter in 1952 to one of its critics:
"For me, 'Fifteen Americans' is the most compelling and dramatic demonstration of the vigor of our art that I have ever seen."
Undaunted, in 1956 Dorothy Miller organized "Twelve Americans," an exhibition that included works by James Brooks, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Ibram Lassaw and Seymour Lipton - the second generation, or "wave," of Abstract Expressionists. "Americans" (1963) included the work of Ad Reinhardt, who wrote to the curator that he preferred not to be associated with The New York School. In between these two shows, Dorothy Miller organized "The New American Paintings" (1958-59), an influential exhibition that traveled to eight European cities and launched the Abstract Expressionist movement internationally. After previewing in New York, the exhibition traveled to Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels and Basel, and the verdict was overwhelmingly positive. It was at this time that there was a palpable shift from Paris to New York as the center of the art world.
The catalogue "Abstract Expressionism at The Museum of Modern Art" includes photographs from MoMA's archives of some of these ground-breaking installations, with curators (William Rubin), artists (Barnett Newman, Hans Hoffman and Lee Krasner) and organizers, including Dorothy Miller, and Renee d' Harnoncourt, Director of MoMA at the time. What is most striking is that these once radical, controversial paintings were displayed in tight, cramped galleries compared with the expansive installations at this show.
In the catalogue Anne Tempkin writes: "Today, Abstract Expressionist paintings appear to be eminent examples of museum art: grand in stature, replete with authoritative majesty. To recall the radical affront they presented at the time of their making, one needs to return to early installation photographs in which the paintings brush against the floors and ceilings of too-small galleries, and to the innumerable cartoons in the popular press lampooning their apparently nonsensical imagery. An eight-by-eighteen foot canvas is now commonplace, and galleries and museums have long since adjusted their own scale to the demands of these works. Moreover, conditioned by decades of large-scale abstract composition far more reductive in its tactics, a vast public now accepts the beauty of an Abstract Expressionist field of color much as it does that of an Impressionist landscape."
The participants in "The New American Paintings" is like the "Whos Who" of the Abstract Expressionist movement: William Baziotes, Lee Krasner, James Brooks, Sam Francis, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottleib, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and Jack Tworkov. The paintings by "less famous" member of the group gives some idea of how high the bar was, and how many treasures there are in MoMA's "holdings." Several other women artists got into the act by the mid-50s, including Hedda Stern, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Louise Bourgeois, and Louise Nevelson.
Anne Tempkin writes in the exhibition catalogue:
"Abstract Expressionism developed simultaneously with the first decade of broadcast television. As art that its makers felt to be profoundly linked to private, spiritual and physical experience, it provided a polar opposite to the mass culture represented by the comedy and variety shows on TV. In the half century since, television has given way to the ubiquity of electronic screens in daily life. At work, at home and in transit, we are attuned to their pulsing digital signals and have become comfortable with viewing anything at handheld size, from a family snapshot to a feature film. But for Abstract Expressionist art to operate fully, the experience must be firsthand - there is no virtual substitute for the encounter between the viewer's body and the canvas or object. These works ask for a type of concentration that is becoming increasingly unusual in a society that bombards our brains with simultaneous visual and auditory stimuli from countless directions. In a world that likes its culture fast, Abstract Expressionist works are uncompromisingly slow."
That is Abstract Expressionism's greatest strength. These works of art do force us to slow down. They must be experienced in person however. When I returned to view the exhibition when it was open to the public, the Pollock, Rothko and Newman "solo rooms" were jammed with admirers who lingered, gazing at the works before them. The first time I re-visited the smaller Newman "solo room" there were a few reverential devotees, not unlike those who prefer to go to a place of worship in the "off hours" when no one else is there, and all is peace and beauty. The wall text cites Barnett Newman: "I 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."
Right: "Painting," by Jackson Pollock, 1945?, Gouache on plywood, 23 by 18 7/8 inches, MoMA; Gift of Monroe Wheeler, on view in "Ideas Not Theories: The Club": Left: "Shimmering Substance," by Jackson Pollock, (1946), 30 1/8 by 24 1/4 inches, MoMA; Mr. and Mrs. Sam A. Lewisohn Funds
In 1951 Jackson Pollock said: "It seems to me that the modern painter cannnot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own techniques."
The two paintings illustrated above by Pollock were painted a year apart, but are light years away from each other stylistically. "Shimmering Substance," (1946), on view in the early "pioneer" gallery (left) bears little resemblance to "Painting," (on view in "Ideas Not Theories: The Club"). Pollocks gestural, symbolic, primitive "Painting" of 1945 gives way to the swirling tumult that is "Shimmering Substance," (1946), which derives from the artists preoccupation with the struggles, urges and drives at work in the human psyche - clearly his own.
"Painting" shows the influence of Surrealism, and still looks like a European painting. "Shimmering Substance" sets a new course for Pollock that results in ground breaking "Full Fathom Five," the first "drip" painting, executed in 1947 (illustrated). Measuring a mere 50 7/8 by 30 1/8 inches, it is almost dwarfed by his other works of art in the "Pollock room", where the immensity of the task he had undertaken at the time - and his constant doubts about it - became an ongoing battle that had serious side-effects in his life. Pollock's "drip" paintings would soon blossom to enormous dimensions. There is a sense in "Shimmering Substance" that Pollock knew there was no turning back. He was cornered by his own genius.
The superb detail above gives some idea of the complexity, focus, discipline and energy required to achieve a painting of this quality. It does not come about by "happenstance," which is how some people think of Pollock's work. The detail is from "There Were Seven in Eight," also painted in 1945. There are miniscule, tentative drips and spatters that would soon become Pollock's trademark, catapulting him to fame. There are also amorphos hieroglyphs, numbers and symbols reminiscent of Lee Krasner that have been enlarged to fit the increasing scale of the canvas. "Gothic," painted in 1944, (the Bequest of Lee Krasner), and a dramatic "drawing in space," (on view in the earliest gallery with other pioneers); "Echo: Number 25," is a dramatic black and white "drawing," painted in black enamel. The shifting styles illustrated here show that Pollock was anxiously seeking new imagery, not settling for anything that did not propel his art forward. "Full Fathom Five" incorporates cigarettes, matches, coins, nails, tacks, buttons and a key - besides paint. A ground-breaking painting in the pantheon of art history, "Full Fathom Five" was the gift of Peggy Guggenheim to The Museum of Modern Art.
Above: "Full Fathom Five," by Jackson Pollock, 1947, Oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, key, coins, cigarette, matches, etc, 50 7/8 x 30 1/8 inches, MoMA, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim
A giant in art history, Jackson Pollock is honored with a "solo" room in this exhibition. The gallery is filled with icons, and his genius ricochets off the walls. Yet his paintings were lampooned and ridiculed in the popular press when they were first presented to the public, with headlines like "Jack the Dripper." The first work by Pollock purchased by The Museum of Modern Art was "She Wolf," (1943), from the artist's first solo show at Peggy Guggenheim's "Art of This Century, on view in the gallery featuring early masterpieces by pioneers of the Abstract Expressionist movement. This was followed by the monumental, swirling cosmos, or "drip" painting, "Number 1A," (1948), illustrated at the top of the story, and behind Glenn Lowry, Director of The Museum of Modern Art. It dominates an entire wall in the "Pollock room," which it shares with a diminutive gem, (by comparison), "Number 7," (1950), illustrated below.
"Number 1A" was laid on the floor of his studio where the artist poured, dripped, dribbled and flicked enamel paint often directly from the can, or with sticks and stiffened brushes. The rythmic tracery of interlacing threads of paint is counter-pointed by pools of dark colors and allover spattering. If anyone else tried to do this, it would turn into a gigantic mess.
The exhibition's wall text cites: "The color and viscosity of the paint, the position of the artist's body, and the speed with which he moved all contribute to the paintings' final appearance."
Watching visitors in the galleries as they encountered Pollock's work was fascinating. There must be many visitors that have only seen a large Pollock canvas illustrated in a book. To experience Pollock in person is like "whoa!" They stopped and stared. There is no ignoring his imagery. His paintings are like the most dramatic moments in life - astonishing, and deeply felt.
In this exhibition, MoMA has broken with tradition by crossing the boundary that has in the past separated works in different mediums. It is an inspired decision, resulting in fantastic juxtapositions like Jackson Pollock's "Number 7," shown above with David Smith's "Australia," a beautiful early work (1951) by the sculptor that is a confluence of gigantic bronze brushstrokes and spatters that echo the movement and rhythm of "Number 7." Large for the time, this sculpture is like a bronze "drawing in space."
Pollock's presence is felt in almost every installation in the exhibition, from spontaneous drawings to statements about how he "made" his paintings, which are included in the review of "Ideas Not Theories: The Club." Illustrated below is "Easter and the Totem," which returns to figuration remininiscent of Arshile Gorky and Henri Matisse, with strong overtones - again - of Lee Krasner. It was painted two years before Pollock's death, in 1954. This would not be unusual if he had not been knee-deep in "drip" paintings at the time. This gorgeous painting is somehow symbolic of Pollock's ongoing struggles with his art making.
Self-doubt is often locked into being "avant-garde." In Pollock's case especially, self-doubt was written into his daily practice, and it was Lee Krasner, his life partner and a superb artist herself, that helped him stay the course for as long as he did because she recognized his genius. As with many of the greatest artists, Pollock was not so sure, and his demons were hard to disperse. This bright, creative fire burned itself out at the height of his career, after five years of grappling with fame, his status as "America's most famous living artist," and persistent doubts about his art. He died in an alcohol-induced car crash in 1956, after drinking heavily at a party in Long Island. He was 44 years old.
The intricate detail, illustrated above, is from "White Light," chronologically the last painting by Jackson Pollock in this show, dated 1954. Once, when he had completed a new "drip" painting, he asked his wife Lee Krasner: "Is this a painting?"
There is a childlike simplicity to that question. The "Pollock room" is a "must" for children of all ages, who have no difficulty recognizing genius. This room is a tour de force, an emotional roller coaster ride of urges, drives, struggles and raw energy laid bare by an artist who was not in the least bit interested in compromise.
Rothko's "No. 5/No. 24 was painted in 1948, a year before Rothko's canvases would break up significantly into coherent blocks and bands of color.
The Jackson Pollock room flows directly into a gallery filled with the glowing, hovering, mystical rectangles of color that are Mark Rothko's trademark. The contrast in styles cannot be more drastic, yet there is a powerful connection between them. The weight of genius is palpable, and both men paid a high price for it. The two rooms devoted to Pollock and Rothko also offer the viewer a unique appreciation of the depth of MoMA's holdings of works by individual artists, and why they chose them. It is possible to track Pollock's and Rothko's progress more or less chronologicaly in a single gallery.
In the exhibition catalog Anne Tempkin writes: "It is staggering to realize that with a few trips to the museum's storage facility in Queens, one can assemble eighteen paintings by Jackson Pollock, ten by Mark Rothko, eight by Arshile Gorky, and so on. Just as the Museum's early generations of curators had labored to assemble career-long surveys of masters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, and Juan Miro, so they deemed these American artists of sufficient historical importance to warrant telling each of their stories step by step. There is no better way to ensure lessons learned - and pleasures gained - than collecting in depth. Rothko's work in the Museum provides a fine case in point. One sees the roots of his development in "Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea," 1944, in which the schematic figures twirling across the horizon do a fertility dance that invokes the birth not only of Rothko's artistic maturity, but that of an entire generation. The format of this fantastical seascape (particularly the demarcated registers of sea and sky) uncannily anticipates what would become his signature style..."
Ms. Tempkin continues: "That style is evident in a number of glorious paintings, such as "No.10," 1950, in which many layers of thin washes of oil paint form misty, floating fields of color, creating a weightless universe where laws of gravity do not apply. But an untitled acrylic painting of 1969-70, completed in the year of Rothko's death, ultimately transforms his idiom into one of opaque fields of black and gray. In this closing act, Rothko's sublime depths of color have given way to an impenetrable wall..." ("No.10," 1950, is illustrated at the top of this story, Gift of Philip Johnson)
The "Mark Rothko room," illustrated above, showcases eight paintings created over fourteen years, including two works from 1948 (illustrated earlier), that feature variously sized and colored abstract forms that float but have not quite settled into any particular style.
The wall text in the gallery cites: "By the end of 1949 these amorphous blocks of color had cohered and settled on the surface of the canvas, creating Rothko's signature format: a composition of vertically stacked blocks and bars of thinly layered paint and precisely modulated color. What these images achieve in structural clarity is complicated by the optical effects they produce. From one to the next, Rothko's canvases radiate or recede, and at times they manage to do both. The blocks of color do not touch the edges of the canvas; they appear to float weightlessly, as if the color had been breathed onto the canvas."
Rothko would continue to explore this format for twenty years, and although it might seem formulaic, "the nuances of color, shape and edge are as unrepeatable as emotions or the weather. Nor can one viewer's perceptual experience duplicate that of another" (wall text).
Rothko was an admirer of J.M.W. Turner, one of the greatest painters of atmosphere, color and light of all time. There are times when Turner's great sunsets, or swirling sea mists come to mind when viewing paintings by Rothko - they induce the same sense of astonishment and awe. Turner's amorphous "mists" were ridiculed when he first presented his paintings. He did not condescend to defend himself. He just pressed on and waited for his public to catch up. It was only when the powerful art critic John Ruskin took on Turner's detractors, and praised his work, that he became famous. Both Turner and Rothko "breathe color" into their compositons in a super-human way, and, paradoxically, both artists worked almost exclusively indoors. Turner did small sketches "en plein air," and made notes about light and weather, but the incredible skies, and sublime ocean sunsets - so reminiscent of Rothko's orange and yellow paintings - were created in his studio, as were Rothko's.
In 1947 Rothko wrote: "Paintings must be miraculous." His sublime "atmospheric" paintings certainly are, and even when the mood darkens, they retain their grandeur, and beauty. Wall text notes: "Mark Rothko's last series of paintings, often called Black on Grays, leaves behind the expressive atmospherics of his earlier work. Their limited palette, rigid geometry, and flat finish speak more in the language of Minimalism, which had by this point entered the changing New York art world."
The best paintings by Rothko evoke the sublime. Like Turner and the early painters of the American West - Bierdstadt's incomparable Rockies, or the awe inspiring panoramas of Yellowstone by Thomas Moran. They are larger than life, and produce unexplained reactions in the viewer. Rothko eliminates the details of place and time of day, and zeros in on the feeling and emotion awe-inspiring moments evoke.
Mark Rothko committed suicide in his New York studio in February 1970. He was 66 years old. The painting illustrated above, "Untitled," is from his "final phase." In an unfinished manuscript for a book he began writing in 1936, Rothko compared the similarities in the art of children and the work of modern painters. He wrote that the work of modernists, influenced by primitive art, could be compared to the art of children in that "child art transforms itself into primitivism, which is only the child producing a mimicry of himself."
In this manuscript, he prophetically declared "the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color."
Thanks to committed curators, and Alfred H. Barr, who did not buckle under the initial onslaught of criticism, we can all bask in the glory of a "Rothko room" today. Whether you are a huge fan of the artist, or not, see this installation in person. It is not to be missed. As the wall text notes: "Ultimately, for Rothko, the relationship between the viewer and a painting, or an artist and a painting, was private and defied explanation."
In the remaining galleries of "The Big Picture," the works of lesser known artists and the "next wave" co-mingle with those of the early pioneers now in their maturity. Many paintings are by now gargantuan in scale, like the Motherwell illustrated here, as are the sculptures of David Smith and Louise Nevelson. Many of the artists in the exhibition continued to work well beyond the 1960s.
The first of six paintings by Phillip Guston at the show is a figurative, small-scale oil, entitled "Gladiators," painted in 1940, displayed in the pioneers gallery. For two decades Guston painted abstractly; lyrical"Painting" of 1954 is testament to his facility with abstract imagery. Then suddenly, in 1968 he made an about turn and returned to figuration, for reasons that become apparent after closely examining the painting above: "His new paintings made explicit the humanist values underlying Abstract Expressionism, a move Guston felt necessary at a new moment of cultural turmoil (wall text). "Edge of Town," (1969) depicts Klu Klux Klansmen in white hoods, (so they cannot be identified by anyone). In their truck or vehicle are the "tools" and trappings of unspeakable evil. They look like thy just lynched someone. Mission accomplished, they are having a relaxing smoke. Guston presents deadly serious subject matter in packaging that does not at first shock the viewer, as a photograph of the same "subject" would certainly do. Subtly, he gets his concerns across.
There are seven paintings spread throughout the galleries by Ad Rhinhardt dating from 1947-1963. A monochromatic sophisticated gem, "Number 22" (painted in 1949), shows the influence of cubism, and the symbolism and hieroglyphics used at the same time by Lee Krasner and Adolph Gottlieb. By the time we get to Rhinehardt's famous "all black" paintings in the mid-50s and 60s, they have more in common with the Minimalists.
The influence and legacy of Arshile Gorky on several "waves" of Abstract Expressionist artists is keenly felt as the show progresses and the dates on the canvases reach the 1970s. When Gorky showed his new painting "The Liver is the Cock's Comb," to Andre Breton in the 1940s, he declared the painting to be "one of the most important paintings made in America," adding that Gorky was a Surrealist, - the highest compliment Breton's could pay him.The painting was included in the Surrealists' final show at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1947. Gorky's short-lived career was packed with visionary intensity, layered on an extremely harsh childhood growing up in Armenia: his father abandoned the family and emigrated to America, he lost his mother in the wake of the Armenian genocide of 1915, (she died of starvation in 1919), after which he emigrated to America. He was 16 years old.
Gorky's art is filled with pathos, and much of it reputed to be informed with the suffering and loss of his youth. He made two versions of "The Artist and His Mother," (in the Collections of The Whitney Museum of American Art and The National Gallery of Art in Washington), that depict himself with his mother, who is wearing traditional Armenian dress. Gorky was 44 when he committed suicide - the same age that Jackson Pollock died in a car crash. Each painting by Gorky exhibited at this show is a masterpiece, a valuable legacy of an exceptional artist's work that makes clear why MoMA's "holdings" are so famous.
Illustrated above is Grace Hartigan's "Shinnecock Canal" (1957), with a fervent young admirer sketching happily in front of it. It is the gift of James Thrall Soby, a former Trustee of The Museum of Modern Art, who wrote many books about the artists of his time and artists of the past, and bequeathed his art collection to the Museum - including this lusciously rendered canvas by Hartigan, that depicts nature in vague, amorphous forms that resist total abstraction. This superb painting is by a "less well known" Abstract Expressionist.
Willem de Kooning was greatly influenced by Gorky, and became one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionist movement by the mid-1950s. He painted figuratively for many years, before returning to abstraction. A superb drawing of a "woman" by him is included in the section entitled "Ideas Not Theories: The Club," that will be reviewed separately. DeKooning's luscious landscape, ""A Tree in Naples," large in scale and included in one of the late galleries, was painted in his pure abstract phase, from the late 50s to 60s. By then he was famous, and had important gallery shows. He moved to Long Island where he died in 1997 at the age of 92. As mentioned, there will be a De Kooning retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in September 2010.
In the exhibition catalog Anne Tempkin writes: "Today's perspective also brings a curiosity about artists beyond the handful of best-known names. An acknowledgment that particular artists are giants need not relegate all others to invisibility; at the time, recognition of certain artists as leaders did not diminish the other's ambitions."
Incredibly sophisticated "The Wheel" (1953) by Jack Tworkov, (illustrated above), gives some idea of the high standard across the board at this show, regardless of who was more famous. It also shows the unmistakable influence of Arshile Gorky.
There are superb photographs by Harry Callahan (1912-1999), Paul Caponigro (born 1932), Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, Walter Chappell (born 1925), and many by Robert Frank, among others. "Chicago," by Harry Callahan, circa 1949, is illustrated above, and gives some idea of the quality of the photographs on view. However, they must be seen in person, as, unlike contemporary photographs, many of the best images are small in scale and would not reproduce well, or give any idea of the nuances contained within them.
A "grand-finale" of this show is a gallery juxtaposing the sculptures of David Smith and Louise Nevelson with paintings by Franz Kline and Clyfford Still, illustrated in this story. David Smith and Louise Nevelson's sculptures grew monumental in scale, as do the works by other artists and sculptors in this show. Smith, who trained as a painter, continued to work on canvas and paper throughout his life. (His stunning drawings are on view in "Rock, Paper, Scissors," together with drawings and sculptures of great beauty by other legendary sculptors, notably Isamu Noguchi. "Rock, Paper, Scissors" and "Ideas, Not Theories: The Club" will be reviewed separately).The inspired installation with sculptures by David Smith, Louise Nevelson and paintings of Clifford Still and Franz Klein is shown above, a spectacular off-road tour in a playground of the imagination. Two sublime Clyfford Stills flirt with sculptures by Smith, and they in turn with the gargantuan brushstrokes of Franz Kline. "Universality" was a goal of Abstract Expressionists. Wordless communication - across all boundaries - pulsates in the Zen-like, abstract iconography of Franz Kline's canvases that looks like Eastern hieroglyphs writ large, and in Clyfford Still's spare but emotional, real and imagined landscapes. The wall text cites: "The powerful brushstrokes and expansive surfaces of Kline's and Still's paintings share with the sculptures an implicit allusion to the vast American landscape and to the self-reliant, independent citizen celebrated by writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. These artists nurtured a collective desire to address broad human experience: "I do not accept the monolithic limit in the tradition of sculpture," said Smith. "Sculpture is as free as the mind, as complex as life."
This is epic, global imagery that needs little translation or explanation. Yet it is hard to imagine that the works of art in this show could have been created without the openness and receptiveness to new ideas of New York City, an arena filled with individuals whose involvement in the arts was, and remains, unprecendented in history. It was from New York City that the Abstract Expressionists fired off incredible innovations, seeking imagery that "would reassert the highest ideal of humankind." Most moving of all is that they were a genuine "group" of artists that shared a common sense of purpose. This is not something one sees today, when it is more about individual achievements.
Walking from gallery to gallery, one gets a strong sense of a group of adventurous spirits pulling together in uncharted waters, withstanding the backlash that innovation inevitably generates. Some became famous, while others continued to work into old age with some degree of recognition. All that mattered to them was that they could continue to "make work." The shows that catapulted them to fame were entitled "Americans," showcasing art created by Americans that did not want to be looking over their shoulder at the past; and paintings by Arshile Gorky that straddled two worlds - old Europe and new America. Ultimately, they inspired a new generation of artists not just in America but around the world. Their legacy has been as phenomenal as the city that bore silent witness to their achievements. It is the "collective" that has made the Abstract Expressionist movement a global phenomenon.
For those that have always hoped to see more of MoMA's legendary archives or "holdings," now is your chance. There are works of art at this show that will revitalize dusty notions that this was a movement of the "few" giants of art history.
Like the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, many of the legendary paintings, sculptures and works of art at this show were "gifted" to the Museum by the artists, their families and foundations, pillars of the community, curators, trustees, art lovers and movers and shakers whose generosity of spirit and far-sightedness enables us to enjoy them today. Now, future generations of art lovers will get to know them. While Abstract Expressionism leapt onto the worlds artistic stage in New York City, this is art that can be universally understood and enjoyed. It transcends place and time. Ideally, it should be experienced in person.
"Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture," is on view from October 3, 2010-April 25, 2011. "Rock, Paper, Scissors", "Ideas, Not Theories: The Club", and "On to Pop" will be reviewed separately.The film program associated with this show begins in 2011. The schedule will be available online at www.moma.org
"Abstract Expressionist New York " is organized by Anne Temkin, The Marie-Jose and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture; Jodi Hauptmann, Curator, Department of Drawings; Sarah Suzuki, The Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr., Assistant Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books; Sara Meister, Curator, Department Of Photography; Michele Elligott, Museum Archivist; Anne Morra, Assoiciate Curator, and Sally Berger, Assistant Curator, Department of Film;with Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist; Sarah Meister; and Palina Pobocha, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture.
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