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Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere


A lot of reviewers have focused on the fact that this exhibition is the inaugural show of the American branch of Haunch of Venison, a commercial gallery that was bought by Christie’s, an art auction house, which is owned by Francois Pinault, a billionaire collector (did any of his money recently disappear?). They seem to think that this represents a nadir of the loosening of the boundaries separating art from commerce, which has been going on for years. And though many claim that only in recent times have the configurations changed for the worse, I don’t believe the presence of Haunch of Venison is significantly more egregious than the chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art giving two retrospectives to an artist represented by the curator’s brother, or trustees exerting indefensible pressure on a museum director to show an artist whose work they collect, or a theorist teaching at a university organizing an exhibition showcasing his collection at the school’s museum, or critics promoting an artist with whom they may have been intimately involved. Speaking of hubris, consider this: if you have almost as much money as Pinault, you can have a museum built with your name on it right next to a county museum and commission an artist to fabricate a sculpture of significant tonnage that would be suspended from chains above the building’s plaza in a city known for earthquakes. Who among us would protest that, if a disaster occurred thanks to such a structure, that it should be viewed as part of the logical historical progression of conceptual art? Like much else going on, Haunch of Venison is part of a murky territory that should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. After everything is said and done, what will remain is the art.

In her New York Times review of Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere, curated by David Anfam—author of the catalogue raisonné of Mark Rothko’s works on canvas for the National Gallery of Washington (among other things) and Commissioning Editor of Phaidon (clearly he doesn’t want to be part of academia) —Roberta Smith dismissively characterized the exhibition as “a sometimes beautiful but absurdly unnecessary exhibition of paintings and sculptures by those mythic market stalwarts, the leaders of the New York School.” (September 11, 2008). Smith’s opening salvo suggests that there are no surprises in the exhibition, and that all of the sixty-three works by twenty-eight artists, including six photographers (Harry Callahan, Barbara Morgan, Hans Namuth, Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, and Minor White) are part of a canon with which we are so familiar that nothing more can be added.

Following on the heels of Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976—organized by Norman L. Kleeblatt at The Jewish Museum (May 4 – September 21, 2008), it is now at the Saint Louis Art Museum (October 19 – January 11, 2009) before going to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (February 13 – May 31, 2009)—Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere is part of a continuing and, as I see it, necessary reexamination of radical American art made between 1940 and 1980 by a generation of artists born between 1904 (Arshile Gorky) and 1926 (Charles Seliger). These aren’t the first shows to offer a different view of the period, nor should they be the last.

Smith’s Times review of Action/Abstraction was very different in tone (May 2, 2008). In it, she points out that the exhibition, the focus of which is the rivalry between Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, two seminal and very influential critics of the era, includes “[a] section titled ‘Blind Spots’—work by Norman Lewis, Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife—[which] represents artists who were not white and male and were almost uniformly neglected by Greenberg and Rosenberg.” However, in her review of Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere, she doesn’t bother to underscore the inclusion of Krasner, Lewis or Barbara Morgan. Did I miss something here? Between the time Kleeblatt’s show was received at The Jewish Museum (September 21, 2008) and Anfam’s opened at the Haunch of Venison (September 9, 2008), did the canon open up and accept such figures as Lewis, Morgan, Seliger, and Sommer without so much as a blink? Will we be seeing their work more often? I certainly hope so.

Any challenge to canonical thinking is worthy of consideration and, in many cases, useful. It can help us see things fresh as well as rescue them from the dusty halls of history. In that regard, Anfam recognizes that the period he focuses on is still contested territory, and he weighs in on it by including work by Sam Francis, Charles Seliger, and Mark Tobey, as well as photographs. I have quibbles with the exhibition, but that is to be expected. Mostly they have to do with who is not included, particularly since Joan Mitchell and Hans Namuth had work in the exhibition, but Norman Bluhm and Rudy Burckhardt did not. But this was Anfam’s exhibition, not mine. And saying that I would have done it differently is hardly surprising.

The exhibition opens with a sculpture by Willem de Kooning (“Hostess” (1973), standing on a pedestal like an agitated child determined to get our attention, greets us as we get off the elevator); a somber, magisterial Clyfford Still from 1955 (his brushwork stands apart from the explosive gestures and self-effacing geometries we think of as integral to Abstract Expressionism); and “Downtown” 1969, by Philip Guston (a piece that may have been in the 1970 Marlborough exhibition that many of his peers saw as a betrayal). With these three disparate works, Anfam establishes a particular parameter (or lens) by which to examine what we mean by the term “Abstract Expressionism.” The juxtaposition of self-important seriousness (Still) with self-mocking humor (de Kooning and Guston), presents an arresting combination that isn’t usually associated with this generation. One doesn’t sense that Greenberg and Rosenberg were prone to yucking it up in front of a painting or sculpture.

In the next room Anfam shifts the focus to black and white, and includes work by Kline, Newman, and Motherwell (a 1970 “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” that is particularly strong). Here, the point is to count the use of a limited palette as one of the major achievements of the Abstract Expressionists, and that very different painters explored it in very different ways. In another room, Anfam hangs a large, mostly pink and dark red Krasner (“Another Storm,” 1963) kitty corner from an expansive 1985 triptych by de Kooning. Not only did both make paintings long after Abstract Expressionism had been eclipsed in the minds of many by Minimalism and Pop Art, but they continued to experiment, change, and even fail. Krasner’s painting, it should be noted, is significantly larger than the five small works by her husband, Jackson Pollock.

In the halls between the interior walls (which form the large gallery spaces) and the windows (it is an office building, after all), one encounters small works by Lewis, Seliger, and Tobey, and a large late painting by Richard Pousette-Dart. Unable to step back from the Pousette-Dart due to the narrowness of the hall, I became much more conscious of his thick, pointillist-like dabs of paint, a road that none of his peers went down. In fact, the variousness of paint application throughout the show suggests that any codified reading of the styles we associate with Abstract Expressionism misses the point. Cicely Brown has been viewed as an heir to Abstract Expressionism because of her wide, brushy strokes, but the comparison is faulty—her approach is a generic gloss of the painters associated with this tendency, not a reinvestigation. Which brings me to another point: the hanging of the exhibition in less than ideal circumstances (and where are ideal conditions to be found, I wonder—certainly not at MoMA or the Guggenheim) compels us to constantly readjust our focus, zero in, and stand back. It is good to be physically reminded that looking at an exhibition isn’t supposed to be the same as peering at a landscape from a moving car while someone else does the driving; it requires constant engagement and attention.

Anfam has not shackled himself with the idea of bringing women and artists of color into the discourse, which is a good thing. Programmatic exhibitions of any kind are often too limiting and didactic. Seliger, who happens to be both white and male, has long been excluded from the canon, largely because he began working on a very small and intimate scale around the time that many of his peers began working on immense canvases. Now 82 years old, Seliger first showed at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century in 1945. Working on a small format for nearly his entire career, which now stretches across seven decades, Seliger’s paintings are a direct and highly considered rebuke to the large or heroic scale utilized by Still, Motherwell, and Pollock, to name just a few.

I have touched on only a few highpoints of the show. Other works I would call attention to are “Idling II,”(1970) by Jack Tworkov and “Untitled,” (1959) by Joan Mitchell, in its use of black and violet. This brings me to the thesis of Anfam’s show, whose title is derived from A World Elsewhere–The Place of Style in American Literature (1966) by Richard Poirier, an American literary scholar and co-founder of the Library of America series. In his brilliant and far-ranging essay, Anfam quotes Poirier:

“American books are often written as if historical forces cannot possibly provide such an environment, as if history can give no life to ‘freedom,’ and as if only language can create the liberated place.”

Anfam is advancing the idea that what the artists in this exhibition have in common is the dream of “freedom,” which is the legacy of Edouard Manet, who refused consistency in favor of exploration. In doing so, Anfam is rejecting those who believe that art history is a series of logical, verifiable steps, and that progress can be codified into a model that others can follow (no wonder he isn’t part of academia). Despite truckloads of pronouncements, some of which are hefty and leather-bound, Anfam, to the contrary, reminds us that the death of freedom in art is not a fait accompli. This is what I think those who dismissed the show overlooked, perhaps because they don’t believe that the dream is still viable.


John Yau


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2008

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