Suitcase Paintings: Small Scale Abstract Expressionism
Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago September 20 – October 26, 2008
Suitcase Paintings: Small Scale Abstract Expressionism, a traveling exhibition making its final stop at Chicago’s Loyola University Museum of Art this fall, argues a case for small works: what dealer Larry Aldrich purportedly deemed “suitcase paintings,” or those he could fit in his suitcase. The exhibition aims to remind us that, despite the iconic status of large-scale Abstract Expressionist paintings, many fine works have been produced at 20 inches or smaller. A quote from Robert Motherwell at the gallery entrance insists, “It’s possible to paint a monumental picture that’s only 10 inches wide, if one has a sense of scale, which is very different from a sense of size.” This is the exhibition’s central thesis: small dimensions do not preclude monumentality. Perle Fine, the New York painter and collagist, is quoted to similar effect, positing that a skilled artist can achieve “impact” even at the size of a “postage stamp.” The exhibition insists that monumentality is not a question of physical dimensions.
Suitcase Paintings is a successful, if at times uneven, exhibition. Organized by Chicago gallery owner Thomas McCormick, it continues his longstanding interest in American abstraction and, in particular, in its lesser-known practitioners. Germinal New York painters like Tworkov, Guston, and Kline are here alongside some who have faded from view (Yvonne Thomas, Melville Price), West Coast painters (Edward Dugmore, Frank Lobdell), and artists from Chicago and the Midwest (Morris Barazani, Frank Vavruska), among others. The range attests to just how influential and widespread Abstract Expressionism became, but the show suffers, too, from the diversity. These painters developed in different urban centers and painted at varying moments (the works in the show range from 1943 to 1963), and you can feel it; there is no sense of eavesdropping on an ongoing painterly conversation as one has at the Jewish Museum’s Action/Abstraction exhibition. Suitcase Paintings’s conclusions speak more to the potential of American abstraction as a vocabulary than to the successes or failures of a particular movement.
The exhibition proves its point many times over. Robert Motherwell’s “Frontier #6” is a black scrabble of pigment just off-center, at once a dead, plunging weight and a tensed, ephemeral flutter. The painting is only 10 by 14 inches in size and yet it has that keen sense of balance—both poised and precipitous—that characterizes Motherwell’s large “Elegies,” making them so achingly magnificent. The best works in the exhibition have an acute grasp of the shifting, tenuous relationship between forms and the canvas center; Norman Bluhm’s 1961 untitled work, a whorl of paint dashed around a beige, empty core, deftly achieves a sense of rushing energy; its gestures spatter and drip at the edges as though an explosion has detonated in its center.
Less monumental and vigorous than the Bluhm and Motherwell paintings, but equally probing and expansive are gestural works by Mary Abbott (“Untitled,” 1951), Michael Goldberg (“Untitled – Still Life,” 1957), and Joan Mitchell (“Untitled,” 1961). Goldberg’s triumphant oil and collage on canvas, a veritable “pocketbook painting” at just under 8 by 10 inches, is a messy, measured meditation on brushwork and color. The frozen, slathered strokes of Mitchell’s painting hang like so many hesitant declarations in the air, at once unexpected and inevitable.
But there's another trend in the show, as well, one that runs counter to the entire language of monumentality. Instead of grand and expansive, these other works are compact and tight. They teem with forms. Melville Price’s 1949 “Untitled (Maze Series)” divides and subdivides into ever-smaller cells and jigsaw-like formations, locking itself into a web of lines and worked-up interstices. The surface of Perle Fine’s untitled collage from 1957 is a granular terrain of gathered paint and crinkled aluminum foil, its textural specificity punctuated by puddles of pigment and scored indentations. These works are particular in their details and insistent on the profusion they convey. Concurrent with the drive toward monumentality is a striving for the contracted and claustrophobic, a sort of qualitative smallness. In these pages, John Yau recently alluded to the “density” and “compactness” of Charles Seliger’s work, noting that “our eyes cannot take them in with one glance.” It is an observation one makes again and again with many of the works in Suitcase Paintings. You do not look at them but rather peer into their interiors, picking your way across their fictive and textural forms.
In a 1959 review of a Kurt Schwitters exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery, poet and art critic James Schuyler wrote in ARTnews, “It is not true to say of Schwitters, as does a note in the catalogue for this show, that ‘despite the usual small format of the pictures…they are monumental.’ It is just in the grasp of scale and the eschewal of the grandiose that they achieve the precision that can give to scraps of paper the life and breath a flower has.” Precision, density, a rejection of the grandiose—what is more opposite the balanced classicism or frenzied angst of monumental abstract paintings? And yet, what could be more familiar? This keyed-up density is everywhere, from the AbExers’ figural scribbling to their cleaving ideographic forms. Significantly, Kurt Schwitters was a big influence on several of Suitcase Paintings’s artists. In collage work here by Anne Ryan, Ronald Alhstrom, Perle Fine, Richard Natkin, and Esteban Vicente, an array of textures (newsprint, scumbled paint, string, fabric, gauzy edges) creates a dense mesh of forms, edges, and intersections. The shunning of monumentality that Schuyler noted in Schwitters—a product, in part, of collage’s synthetic, additive approach—is equally present in work by the artists who took up the medium in New York.
These denser, tighter works invite a focused and expansive gaze, penetrating and loose. If the monumental works assert their presence in our space (making an impact from across the room, or disturbing one’s sense of bodily orientation), these smaller ones pull us eyes first into their space. Of course, the dichotomy is not absolute. Like the Cubist grid that insidiously asserts itself in all-over gesture painting, density has an alarming way of precipitating the monumental, and vice versa. In the present exhibition, Janet Sobel’s lava-like flow of textured red and Alfonso Ossorio’s motile strands of pure, layered paint-energy straddle both modes: they evince expansive strength while ensnaring your gaze in their weathered, textured matrices of line and color.
Suitcase Paintings succeeds in its stated aim: it shows us some very fine works on the small end of the spectrum and proves that scale is not dependent on size. It makes some larger, perhaps unintended points as well. Suitcase Paintings emphasizes not only the monumental in the minute, but also the minute itself as a fertile working mode in American abstraction.
Emily Warner is a New York-based critic and writer, and former Editorial Intern at NYFA Current.