Friday, June 29, 2012

Abstract Expressionist New York

Drawn entirely from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, Abstract Expressionist New York traced the development of Abstract Expressionism from its auspicious beginnings in the 1940s to its seasoned maturity in the 1960s. The exhibition was on view at MoMA from October 3, 2010-April 25, 2011. Marking the Museum’s largest and most comprehensive presentation of Abstract Expressionist art, this wide-ranging survey brings together some 250 works across a variety of mediums, including painting, sculpture, drawings, prints, photographs, and film. Masterpieces by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, and Joan Mitchell were joined by lesser-seen but revelatory works by artists who developed independent voices within Abstract Expressionism. In addition to providing a fresh look at scores of works of art that have not been seen together in half a century, the exhibition also offered a selection of images and documentary material from The Museum of Modern Art Archives, which illustrated the linked histories of Abstract Expressionism, MoMA, and New York City during this pivotal moment in modern art. Abstract Expressionist New York was on view throughout the Museum, spanning 25,000 square feet of gallery space, including the entire fourth-floor painting and sculpture galleries as well as galleries on the second and third floors.

Abstract Expressionist New York was organized by Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture; Jodi Hauptman, Curator, Department of Drawings; Sarah Suzuki, The Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr., Assistant Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books; Sarah Meister, Curator, Department of Photography; Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist; Anne Morra, Associate Curator, and Sally Berger, Assistant Curator, Department of Film; and Paulina Pobocha, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture.

Abstract Expressionism ranks among the movements most closely associated with The Museum of Modern Art. From the moment of its founding, the Museum honored, as part of its mandate, a commitment to art by Americans as well as by Europeans. Under the leadership of founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., its initial pursuit of works by Abstract Expressionist artists took place within the context of a wide-ranging program of acquisitions and exhibitions of work by artists living in the United States. Built on this strong foundation, the Museum’s present-day collection of Abstract Expressionism—unrivalled in its breadth and depth—was formed over the course of many decades with the sustained support of the Museum’s curators, trustees, and often the artists themselves.

Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture

Subtitled The Big Picture, this installation of 100 Abstract Expressionist paintings and a rich selection of some 60 sculptures, drawings, prints, and photographs, occupies the entire fourth floor of the Museum and chronicles the era of Abstract Expressionism. The movement drew together a host of artists with greatly varying stylistic approaches, but with a common commitment to the power of an abstract art that could express personal convictions and profound human values.

Organized in a loose chronology, intermittently interrupted by monographic galleries that allow for the in-depth study of an individual artist’s practice, the installation opened with a selection of paintings and drawings that attest to the acutely self-conscious sense of new beginnings present in the work of individuals such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, they and their peers—not yet a cohesive group—created imagery that evoked primitive man or ancient myth, and conjured an aquatic or geological pre-human world.

Upon entering the galleries, visitors were greeted by Jackson Pollock’s The She-Wolf (1943), which was featured in the artist’s first solo exhibition, in 1943, and was the first work by Pollock to enter a museum collection when MoMA acquired it the following year. Made before Pollock developed his signature “drip” style, the canvas shows that a free-form abstraction and an unfettered play of materials were already parts of his process.

Also on view was Mark Rothko’s Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944), a canvas picturing two creatures floating between sea and sky, surrounded by arabesques, spirals, and stripes that betrays the influence of Surrealism on Rothko’s early work.

A monographic gallery was devoted to the work of Barnett Newman included Onement, I (1952), which the artist later identified as his breakthrough painting. Modest in size, it consists of a monochromatic background divided in half by a vertical band, or “zip” as the artist later called it. Every successive painting by Newman, as seen in the seven works in this gallery, features this particular compositional motif, although their formal and emotional differences are apparent. The scale and proportions of the paintings, as well as their palette and brushwork, vary from work to work, as do the number of zips and their location in the field of color.

At the other end of the spectrum from this relatively small canvas is Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51), an 18-foot-wide, vibrant red expanse that was Newman’s largest painting at the time of its creation.

The distinctive materials, techniques, and approaches developed and practiced by the Abstract Expressionists can be seen in a number of other works from the late 1940s and early 1950s.

For Painting (1948), Willem de Kooning used oil and enamel sign paint to create a densely packed painting in which the paint drips, bleeds, congeals, or dissolves into delicate streaks.

Lee Krasner’s Untitled (1949) shows that she applied thick paint—sometimes directly from the tube—in rhythmic and repetitive strokes, giving equal attention to every inch of the canvas and creating an allover composition.

Bradley Walker Tomlin, in Number 20 (1949),

and Adolph Gottlieb, in Man Looking at Woman (1949), distributed imagery evoking the alphabet and hieroglyphics evenly across their canvases.

A large gallery focusing on the work of Jackson Pollock included Full Fathom Five (1947), one of earliest “drip” paintings,

and Number 1A, 1948 (1948), the first drip painting to enter MoMA’s collection (in 1950).

For One: Number 31, 1950 (1950), a masterpiece of the drip technique and one of Pollock’s largest paintings (8' 10" x 17' 5 5/8" [269.5 x 530.8 cm]), the artist laid the canvas on the floor of his studio and poured, dribbled, and flicked enamel paint onto the surface, sometimes straight from the can, or with sticks and stiffened brushes. The density of interlacing liquid threads of paint is balanced and offset by puddles of muted colors and by allover spattering.

Eight paintings made by Mark Rothko over a 14-year period were presented in a single gallery.

The earliest examples from 1948, such as No. 1 (Untitled), feature variously sized abstract forms caught mid-motion as they shift on the canvas. Beginning in 1950, Rothko’s “classic” style forms as the artist creates a composition from horizontal planes of thinly layered paint and highly modulated color, simplifying the compositional structure of his paintings and arriving at his signature style.

No. 10 (1950) is divided horizontally into three dominant planes of blue, yellow, and white that softly and subtly bleed into one another. Acquired by MoMA in 1952, it was the first Rothko to enter the Museum’s collection, and was considered so radical that a trustee of the Museum resigned in protest.


Published to accompany the exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York, Abstract Expressionism at The Museum of Modern Art presents a selection of more than 100 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and photographs, drawn entirely from the Museum’s vast holdings of works from this transformative period in art history. An essay by Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, traces the Museum’s close relationship with the movement, from Abstract Expressionism’s beginnings in the 1940s through its maturity in the 1960s. A fascinating array of documentary photographs from The Museum of Modern Art Archives illustrates that history, from installation shots of an early Willem de Kooning exhibition to candid photographs of Barnett Newman and Lee Krasner mingling at opening receptions. Abstract Expressionism at The Museum of Modern Art is both a catalogue of highlights from a renowned collection and a portrait of a pivotal era in the history of modern art.