Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera
The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Opened December 17, 2018
The title of the Met’s new ongoing installation, Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera, suggests a revisionist take on the history of abstraction since World War II. However, the show is drawn almost entirely from the permanent collection, which is simply not broad enough in this area to fulfill such an ambitious promise. The Met’s postwar holdings do, however, happen to include a good number of works by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, which are used to anchor the show. Two galleries, one dedicated to each iconic figure, lead off the installation by sketching out the terrain of radical painting around 1950: Pollock’s gestural theatrics against Rothko’s expansive and stately color fields. The rest of the galleries track the development of large scale abstraction over the following decades, often operating between the familiar stylistic poles established by these two canonical Abstract Expressionists.
The most effective section of Epic Abstraction comes toward the end, in a gallery that showcases the achievements of women. Helen Frankenthaler’s Western Dream (1957) displays her pioneering stain technique, a quantum leap forward for which her male followers—artists like Morris Louis, the only man whose work is included in this room—received much recognition at the time. Representing the geometric sensibility are two studies (both 1973) by Op Art luminary Bridget Riley , as well as Anne Truitt’s monolithic Goldsborough (1974). This sculpture combines the intractability of Minimalist form with a delicate pink surface, coming across as a parodic comment on the limiting aesthetic expectations often associated with “the feminine” in art. Also notable is Joan Mitchell’s La Vie en Rose (1979). In this four-panel, 22-foot-long work, violent black passages vie with luminous greys, lilacs, and purples in a finely judged confrontation that earns the descriptor epic in both its scale and impact.
Unfortunately, the selection that follows in the installation’s final room is perhaps its most poorly considered. This gallery includes strong offerings from Yayoi Kusama, Thornton Dial, and Elizabeth Murray, but it’s difficult to see what unites the works included here, or what they are meant to say to one another. The jarringly eclectic effect is only intensified by the appearance, in a show dedicated to abstraction, of clearly recognizable imagery: the outlines of Africa and South America in Frank Bowling’s Night Journey (1969 – 70). More distressing is the familiar sight of Jean Tinguely’s Narva (1961), encountered so frequently over the years in this very room. One gets the uneasy sense that an arbitrarily selected gallery of the preexisting permanent installation has somehow smuggled itself into Epic Abstraction.
95 1/4 x 81 3/8 x 1 3/8 inches. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The rest of the show largely splits the difference between success and the baffling or overfamiliar. The galleries dedicated to Pollock and Rothko, for example, provide a solid showcase of two iconic figures while gesturing towards the eclectic character of the installation as whole. For example, an untitled painting (1958) by Shiraga Kazuo, of the Japanese avant-garde group Gutai, appears among the Pollocks of the first gallery. Shiraga is noted for the performative character of his practice: he painted with his feet, suspended above the canvas from rope. These dynamic methods are long established in art historical circles as an effective foil for Pollock’s action painting, although the comparison doesn’t always work in favor of the Japanese artist, whose striking and distinctive work is sometimes reduced to a comment on American or European contemporaries. In a broadly similar gambit, Isamu Noguchi’s Kouros (1945) is included in the gallery dominated by Rothko. This roughly figural collection of biomorphic forms is placed opposite two of Rothko’s early watercolors (both 1944–46). These paintings highlight Abstract Expressionism’s debt to Surrealism, featuring abstracted and organic figures that clearly echo the formal language deployed by Noguchi, for whom Surrealism was also an important point of reference at midcentury.
The three rooms that make up the middle of the installation track the development from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism—a well-known story that didn’t need to be rehearsed in such detail. In the first of these galleries, the significance of painterly gesture emerges as an important theme. Pollock’s calligraphic drip reappears near both Willem de Kooning’s assertively handled Easter Monday (1955 – 56) and the scribbled handwriting of Cy Twombly’s Dutch Interior (1962). In the next, the importance of East Asian calligraphy is broached explicitly by Yūichi Inoue’s Kanzan (Cold Mountain) (1966) and immediately to the right we find, rather predictably, a work by Franz Kline, whose athletic brushwork often invites the same comparison. Other more recent works also coexist with the Abstract Expressionists. Notable among these are two memorable selections that date from this century: Chakaia Booker’s Raw Attraction (2001), an uncanny assemblage of tire rubber that seems to hover in the gallery space; and Mark Bradford’s Duck Walk (2016), which formally recalls the Clyfford Stills hung nearby.
In its largest space, the installation moves from the concerns of gestural abstraction to those of Minimal and hard-edge painting. A link to Abstract Expressionism, however, is maintained by Barnett Newman’s Shimmer Bright (1968). This work is one of his most austere: two clean blue zips occupy the left edge of an otherwise bare white field. The choice to include Newman here, instead of with contemporaries like Pollock and De Kooning, reflects his status as a father figure for the Minimalism of artists like Robert Mangold and Ellsworth Kelly, who both contribute characteristic works. A single abstraction by Carmen Herrera, titled Equilibrio (2012), is also included between Kelly’s Blue Panel II (1977) and Kenneth Noland’s October (1961). The fact that Herrera is represented by only a single recent work raises the question: why is she highlighted so prominently in the show’s title? It only primes the viewer to expect a fresh take on the material that never, in fact, materializes. This indignity is only compounded by the fact that the Herrera is tucked away behind Louise Nevelson’s massive Mrs. N’s Palace (1964 – 77). Nevelson’s sculpture dominates the gallery space and transforms it into a kind of rectangular corridor—perhaps in oblique reference to Minimalism’s environmental effects. But again, one has to ask: why shoehorn Nevelson into this role? The decision seems motivated, like too much of Epic Abstraction, more by what happened to be on hand than by what would make for a compelling or challenging installation.
Benjamin Clifford is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.