Tag Archives: Abstract Expressionism

Rotating the Collection at the Whitney Museum

The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965; opened June 28; ongoing.

Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s; March 29 – August 28, 2019.

(at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

Five years in, The Whitney has become thoroughly at home in its spacious new digs and primo downtown locale (the right move out from the old guard Upper East Side).  This is the second substantial collection overview-type installation since the new building’s inaugural extravaganza (2015). The rotation and attention to expanded contexts for a few renowned works that have remained on view in shifted juxtapositions is notable.  (I must say, a welcome trend seen in major museums broadly; remember when a small portion of a museum’s holdings remained on view in the same spots seemingly for decades?) The salon-style painting display in a dark blue gallery at the start (facing the 7th floor elevators; above) is effective in setting the mood, scale, and subject range–a mix of urban and rural, portrait, landscape, and genre–in mainstream Depression Era art in America. At the same time, an elite few were busy opening galleries and museums in Manhattan, like the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose “Whitney Museum of American Art” opened at a downtown location in 1931.  GVW was a committed supporter and promoter of living American artists, not to mention an artist herself aware that her larger mission presented conflicts of interest. Unlike her art-philanthropic peers (for the most part), her interest in the production of her time left a strong collective record of the years between the wars on the American scene through a heavy lens of New York.  A lack of wall labels draws visitors close, partly to look for signatures. Works by renowned American Regionalists like George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton are immediately recognizable, partly due to their early and close identification with the Whitney.  There were several women artists on this wall that I did not know, as well as elsewhere throughout; like Madeline Shiff (aka Wiltz), whose lively portrait of her artist-husband painting a landscape in a windowless studio here (Wiltz at Work, 1932) both reinforces and goes towards filling the lacunae of her own career.    

Several mini-show arrangements, according to the museum’s holdings, stars with Edward Hopper.  One of the great “poignant clown” depictions of many in modernist paintings can be seen in his early Soir Bleu (1914), a post-Impressionist-like Parisian pub scene and last European nod in his oeuvre.  Across the room and several decades the sublimely distilled ordinary New York air of Early Sunday Morning (1930) beckons.  Nearby is Georgia O’Keeffe, whose aesthetic approach and temperament, via the results, are diametrically opposed.  Likewise, a display of selections from Jacob Lawrence’s War Series (c. 1946-47), which is truly experimental in its washy sepia palette and rhythmic forms without loosing humanistic, topical force.  A number of sculptural elements from Alexander Calder’s Circus (1926-1931), a Whitney coup, have been re-installed in an isolated darkened niche featuring a documentational film (1961, transferred to bright video) of the artist performing his kinetic ensemble.  That is, cranking, blowing, twisting his miniaturist mixed media props, caricatures, and animals to tumble, race, jump, and dance in ingeniously low-tech machinations.  If art is play for adults (as some psychoanalytical theories suggest) Calder was deep in and highly convincing. 

Other pre-WWII works are grouped stylistically; such as Cubist-informed “Machine Age” cityscapes paintings by the Charles-es, Demuth and Sheeler and art-deco architectural sculpture by John Storrs, Surrealist-tinged work, which, in the United States, elided in many cases with aspects of Social Realism and even Regionalism, whether or not in conscious intent. A remarkable contribution here is a visionary animated film, as far as later video and other digital art goes by Mary Ellen Bute (Spook Sport, 1939).  Of many additional highlights in the pre-WWII section, you won’t miss a relatively large-scale, quirky painted ode to the end of WWI and her beloved NYC in general by Florine Stettheimer, with fabric folds added to Lady Liberty; and don’t miss Elizabeth Catlett’s quietly uplifting terracotta-as-bronze Head (1947).

The  Abstract Expressionist section is energized by a boldly splotched Ed Clark canvas and a crusty, monumental relief-painting by Jay DeFeo; and Pop Art is dominated by Tom Wesselmann’s ginormous Still Life Number 36 (1964), from his loose kitchen-counter collage-paintings series, which presciently anticipates the Photoshop-based paintings of Jeff Koons and other digital “commodities” artists.  Warhol’s silver-screened Elvis Two Times (1963), however, holds its own despite, or because of the artist’s consistent omnipresence in so many spheres of the contemporary art world.  (Younger viewers probably now recognize “a Warhol” before his once ubiquitous celebrity depictions.)  

The 8th floor show on color as form in painting of the 1960s is a kind of addendum, first and foremost conveying how dominant abstraction had become by then. Kenneth Noland’s dizzying “post-painterly” (a la Clement Greenberg) measured-stripe abstraction at the entrance (New Day,1967) looks thoroughly triumphant.  A now classic stained canvas “bunting” piece by Sam Gilliam stands out against the majority work in geometrically-defined color-blocked experiments, sometimes differentiated only slightly in handling between different artists. And a few representational artists, it is proposed, still focused primarily on color in at least some work of this period, as in good examples by Alex Katz, Bob Thompson, Kay Walkingstick, and Emma Amos.  A thoughtful but not too didactic display. 

With this history under your belt, you’re ready to tackle the Biennial on two floors below (through 9/22/19) — if anything is left in the show by the time you get there (see Biennial) !

Andy Warhol, Elvis Two Times, 1963 (installed in the exhibition, The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965 (photo: 7/12/19).
Kenneth Noland, New Day, 1967 , installed in the exhibition, Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s at the Whitney Museum (photo: 7/12/19).

“Joan Mitchell: I Carry My Landscapes around with Me”

At David Zwirner, 537 W. 20th St., through July 12, 2019.

Abstract Expressionist  painting (and this is that) is not so much about reflecting visual reality but making parallel visual reality. And the making of the making, funneled through vision.  That doesn’t mean the results necessarily or not refer to nothing beyond themselves nor that this aspect is incompatible with intuitive, gestural, self-referential or other aspects associated with its aesthetic terrain as historicized.  For example, reading Mark Rothko’s horizontally segmented compositions as landscapes or Clyfford Still’s stalactite forms geological, whatever the artists’ non-objective intentions.  Mitchell skews closer to the edge of nature (as per the artist quote and exhibition title above), encasing atmospheric experience in the picture plane with an economy of drippy, weave-y brushwork and a joie de la coleur that evoke Fauvism—the Matisse reference per se also on point—rather than topographic environment.  Part of that may be absorbed from the prolonged close proximity (literally and figuratively) to the landscapes of Monet, whose own abstract-leaning work hovers between encroaching blindness and close-up optics.  Yet the large-scale multi-panel format (as in Monet’s late work) itself echoes or mirrors spatial expanse despite its ontological flatness.

Anyway, each example in this survey, spanning four decades, is energetically gorgeous–a profusion of signature reedy, ribbon-y brushstrokes with spots of blank canvas spraying light from behind.   The painted strands gather densely in places and in others fray into surface maps and  pathways, while color runs the gamut across seasons and terrain in associative juxtapositions, inadvertently and not.   In some cases, Mitchell got away with very little—a very high complement.  Minnesota (1980), a breezy brilliant discourse on yellow and shadow in the glare of the white backdrop, is a fave from now on.  Elsewhere, she invites us to wallow deeper into layered representation as well as the metaphoric free range of the studio. 

Detail/installation shot: Joan Mitchell, Riviere, 1990 (at David Zwirner, 537 W. 20th St., NYC (6/22/19).

Double Whammy at Zwirner: Ad Reinhardt; Ruth Asawa

At David Zwirner, 537 W. 20th, through October 21:

Ad Reinhardt: Blue Paintings (ground floor)

Ruth Asawa (upstairs)

The only (NYC) gallery show in recent memory to compare in sublimity to this  Reinhardt “blues” display is last winter’s  Rothko at Pace.  Through the oeuvre of both artists, the primary subject, object, and effect is a palpable, pulsating “aura” uncannily emanating from pigment and turpentine.  The proto-Minimalist, monochrome monk, Reinhardt (1913-1967) is best known for his late paintings of barely perceptible black-on-black geometry.  And yet, for decades previously,  he was nothing if not a colorist in the wake of, well, Matisse–if anyone is uniformed or skeptical on that count, this show will dispel that.  Not only does each work present nothing but blues,  but each also, simultaneously, may conjure window, sky, sea, air, iconic spirituality—pace Reinhardt’s committed art-secular, non-objective motives and intentions.  Yet, especially in terms of “spirit,” once viewers engage his results, some (like me) might surmise he had far more in common with Malevich’s precedent Suprematism than he consciously wished to realize.

The wire basketry abstraction of Asawa (1926-1913) is a tensile and delicate dialectical balance of surrealist-like whimsy and danger, mystery and rationality, magic and labor, soft and sharp, shape and line.  Most characteristically, hanging, curving lamp-like objects of macramé-ish woven wire are comprised of a core and an encasement of the same manufacture around it—a bottle-in-a-bottle, double-mesh mirage.  The wire also can read as twig like, nature-bound trompe-l’oeil in several symmetrical wall “mandalas.”  Asawa‘s back-story, as survivor of a WWII-era Japanese internment camp and rise in the art sphere as a serious abstractionist in an era and sphere thoroughly dominated by men, is more than reason enough to pay homage.   But the art itself will make a lasting impression analogous to a gorgeous tattoo that remains haunted by its haptic birthing pain.

“Ruth Asawa” exhibition at Zwirner (10/14/17)

Ab Ex Zen Palette / Gen Y Pattern Painting in Chelsea

Mark Rothko: Dark Palette, through January 7 at Pace, 510 W. 25th St.

Andrew Kuo: No to Self; through January 14 at Marlborough Chelsea, 545 W. 25th St.

Diametrically opposed in approach and sensibility, the respective abstract paintings of the historically enshrined Rothko and the relative youngster Kuo can both be described as psycho-scapes featuring saturated color.

Art historian Robert Rosenblum nailed it with his approach to Ab Ex as latter-day Romanticism likewise treading on the infinite enormity of interior consciousness as well as the universe beyond the rational human sphere (Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko, 1975).  Rothko himself said as much (in more brief but similar terms), down-playing purely visual or formalist exegeses on his works.  Rather, his mythically-proportioned emotional efforts, informed by a heavy dose of Nietzschean faith in tragic redemption and Eastern (very loosely) spirituality sought to penetrate the core of the viewer.  While Rothko’s entire oeuvre of color-spectrum-spanning, floating rectangular fields pulsates uncannily, this spacious suite of his literally darkest explorations–blended Mars red, crimsons, blue-blacks, grays, umbers, deep violets and veridians–epitomizes the aesthetic sublime in all its connotations and (collectively) envelopes the viewer.

Equally apropos, a brilliant Rosenblum quip analogizing Rothko’s serial sectional compositions with static-infused Buddhist t.v. (ingrained from a class lecture decades ago).  Along the same lines, scanning closely the veiled surface layers of these canvases pays off with otherwise imperceptible short brush strokes executed with Zen-like repetition.  Thus the blockish forms settle and shift between density and translucency simultaneously, baiting the viewer’s gaze to focus.  Here is W. Benjamin’s “aura” at its most palpable–and somewhat pace his famous thesis, virtually nothing of these hand-hewn originals are conveyed in reproductions.

Overall, the bigger the better among these deeply brooding art presences, but, several small-scale works included are also soul-shattering gems.  As a whole, an intense painting experience for viewers that melds the limits of visual distinction, the (Freudian) death drive, and Zen mindfulness to iterate, in a word, existence.


A generational product of the digital revolution, Kuo achieves a kind of Op Art on steroids in this display of recent paintings.  His method mimics an algorithmic interlocking of lines and boldly contrasting, flat and sharp-edged colors-shapes assigned variously to diaristic emotions, thoughts and daily tasks.  The results are perhaps more fleshed out electroencephalogram than abstraction per se.  Exactly, according to the artist (in statements), and emphasized by the appearance of inscribed explanatory keys (a là those on geographic maps) on a bottom strip of each canvas.

Nonetheless the dizzying endgames, which can evoke far-flung postwar Neo-Geo directions and textile patterns, are awesome and uncompromising.   A tendency in viewers (myself) may be to wish away the keys in favor of Kuo’s virtuosity vis-a-vis optical buzz–uninterrupted.  Yet, surely Kuo has considered and grappled with this critique a priori–which renders his exposed compositional trope compelling in its preemptive defiance.


The Cryptic Calligraphy of Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis

“From the Margins . . . “; at the Jewish Museum, through 2/1/15.

The kudos are out on the astute juxtaposition of Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis–close chronological and artistic peers in postwar New York—not surprising with life-term JM curator Norman Kleeblatt at the helm.  By virtue of sex and race, these Abstract Expressionists (among others) were relegated to the margins of the white, macho-ized movement, for which Krasner’s bad-boy husband, JP, was poster boy.  Since the infiltration of feminist and Africentric (Michael Harris’s term) perspectives and correctives into the critical discourse in the 1980s, their respective stock (literally, historically, aesthetically) has risen exponentially; here, the presented balance of mediated formal experimentation and autonomous signature mark-making is impressive.

Miro is one seemingly common thread  at the roots of the linear, biomorphic predilections seen especially in the earliest paintings on view by both artists.  Heavy, coagulated contours harden into crustily-gridded symbols in several examples of Krasner’s most recognizable stylistic and compositional type.  The artist herself suggested her early study of Hebrew as a subconscious source for her vaguely geometric, impasto script.  In a large chunk of Lewis’s oeuvre, on the other hand,  wiry, vertically-oriented scribbling (sometimes scratched out, sometimes inky) interpenetrate blurred, turpentine-y fields well described (in a wall label) as “smoky.” His “language” derives from figuration, often processional crowds with musical and political underpinnings (examples included). Both artists go through drippy, tangle-skeined stages and monochromatic diversions—Krasner’s thick to Lewis’s thin.  Interestingly, the materially robust Krasners can convey spiritual content, while the ghostly Lewises can refer to the physical world in the frequent directional orientation of featured forms.  Both convey a serious grappling with concepts of cosmos broadly no less than shifting backgrounds and foregrounds that can be mesmerizing with some focused attention.

Quiet displays of non-ironic, hand-hewn abstraction can be especially engaging in the increasingly visually and verbally loud, industrial-strength art era that is ours—even more especially on a relatively small—or at least human—scale. The painting here is the real thing (if you see/if you’ve seen it, ‘nuf said).

P.S.: Clichés about the distortion of art reproductions especially applies with these subtle paintngs (anyway, no snapping allowed).