ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM BEHIND THE IRON CURTAINby Joyce Beckenstein
POLLOCK-KRASNER HOUSE AND STUDY CENTER | AUGUST 3–OCTOBER 28, 2017
In 1945, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner purchased an 1879 farmhouse in Easthampton, New York that is today the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. Here, they created the iconic paintings that helped launch a distinctly American style of Abstract Expressionism. But Krasner and Pollock knew that the art movement they helped define was not a singularly American vision. Abstract Expressionism Behind the Iron Curtain, a small gem of an exhibition, opens eyes wide to the global phenomenon that art history has yet to fully understand.
Pollock and Krasner would no doubt welcome as kindred spirits the artists whose paintings now fill the pristine white walls of their home. Composition (1958) by Polish artist and theatre director Tadeusz Kantor (1915–90) seems especially content in its spot above the old sofa in the foyer-parlor. Its stringy drips of black pigment, raining down streaks and blobs of yellow, white, red, and pink, at first glance suggest a Pollock work. But sensitizing viewers to the differences and cautioning them to avoid automatic attributions of influence is a major achievement of this exhibition and its concise and thoughtful catalogue. It first of all reminds us that, while Pollock’s spirited confrontations with paint and canvas—his freely expressed bursts of psychic energy—catapulted him into an equally free open art market of critics, collectors, galleries, and museums, Kantor and his fellow compatriots were far more inhibited by governments tolerating only state-sanctioned social realism. Nor were there collectors, galleries, or museums in these countries to support an avant-garde. Thus we sense within these exhibited works a plaintive refrain, a fragile humming of one’s “right” to free expression.
“Pollock and Krasner saw themselves as part of a larger movement,” says Helen Harrison, director of the Center, which was created according to Krasner’s wishes. “She wanted to establish a ‘public museum and library’ and left their books to form the core of the library collection, including publications sent to Pollock by the Japanese Gutai group. They inspired the museum’s 2009 Gutai exhibition, its first to examine Abstract Expressionism’s global manifestations.”
The impulse to specifically focus on an exhibition of Eastern European artists working in Abstract Expressionist styles arose in 2014, when Joana Grevers—a member of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Advisory Board and the Tate’s Acquisition Committee for Russian and Eastern European art—visited Harrison to introduce her to the work of Romanian artist Romul Nuţiu. They decided to launch this small exhibition—just ten paintings—to explore art by several artists working independently in Communist-bloc countries after World War II—Romania, Croatia and Slovenia (the former Yugoslavia), Poland, and Czechoslovakia.
This exhibition clearly parses Abstract Expressionism as an American phenomenon with parallel European movements, most significantly Art Informel and its offshoot, Tachisme. It explores how artists learned from these genres according to their sporadic and serendipitous opportunities for travel. Romul Nuţiu (b.1932), from Romania, a particularly harsh post-war country, was primarily influenced by Art Informel. His Dynamic Universe XXIV (1970) exemplifies an inventive technique he devised by combining water and car paint in shallow vats. Because oil and water do not mix, colored paint floats upon the surface. Nuţiu gesturally orchestrated these free-form shapes with a wooden bar, and then imprinted their patterns onto the canvas.
Taking advantage of Yugoslavia’s relaxation of constraints in the late ’50s, Slovenian artist Andrej Jemec (b. 1934) travelled to Paris and London. His compelling paintings In the Forest (1960) and Battle (1960) are dominated by broad slashes of black lines. Afloat like tree trunks torn asunder, they yield to warm light infiltrating from the backcloth of the canvas. Edo Murtić (1921-2005) of Croatia also took advantage of Yugoslavia’s relative freedoms, traveling to the US where he met Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists. His White Background (1959), consisting of rectangular shapes gliding across the canvas like clouds navigating open sky, conveys lyrically tranquil states of mind. Jan Kotik (1916-2002)—a painter and respected designer of glassworks, tapestries, and earthenware—left Czechoslovakia for Sweden and later West Berlin. His minimal abstractions, Painting 22 (Whiteboard) (1964) and Calligraphy (Black Painting) (1961) reflect his love of calligraphy and Chinese art.
Artists who couldn’t travel relied on second-hand information: newspapers, magazines, exhibition photographs, and catalogs stashed in the luggage of visitors, who often smuggled out works by Eastern European artists. Traveling exhibitions such as Modern Art in the United States (1955-56) and The New American Painting (1958–59) were also important sources and resources for artists who got to see them when they toured Europe and then brought news of them back home. And we must not forget the rich tradition of early modernism that preceded WWII—the lifeblood of the avant-garde that would not submit to the ashes of war.
This exhibition does much to churn our curiosity in most timely ways. We’re eager to know more about the crosscurrents that keep art flowing across borders, sailing through walls built to sandbag creative freedom. Harrison indicates that plans are being made for a larger exhibition of Eastern European works at the National Gallery in Prague. Biographies of artists included in the catalogue indicate substantial exhibitions in France, London, and Germany, but less so in the US. Hopefully this is about to change.
Joyce Beckenstein is a writer living in New York.