Published: October 31, 2000
: A Decade of Change 1936 – 1946
GREENWICH, CONN.- The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science was bustling with excrdf_Descriptionent on the opening day of their most ambitious show to date – ”: A Decade of Change 1936 – 1946.” The show continues through December 31. It was curated by Nancy Hall-Duncan and Irving Sandler.
– known in certain circles as The Big Bang theory. It also shows that Ab Ex needed to react against the popular American Regionalist art of the Thirties in order to spring forth.
Early on, Nancy Hall-Duncan, curator of art at the Bruce Museum, enlisted the help of Irving Sandler, guest curator. Sandler is an art critic and historian who is professor emeritus, School of Art+Design, Purchase College, SUNY, and former president of the American Section of the International Art Critics Association. He is widely known through his books, which include The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism; The New York School: Painters and Sculptors of the 1950s; and American Art of the 1960s and Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s.
Interest piqued, Mr Sandler queried Ms Hall-Duncan, about the types of exhibitions she had curated in the past. He was thrilled to learn of ”The Surrealist Vision: Europe and the Americas.” Sandler felt strongly that this was a wonderful embarkment for the two curators, as he sites Surrealism with its psychic automatism, as one of the major influences leading to Ab Ex.
So many forces went into the Abstract Expressionist movement that it is a bit like trying to decipher the ingredients of a complex primordial soup. This show gives new meaning to the words Melting Pot. The two curators have given us the recipe, but it’s up to us to digest it. The dynamism of the period is enough to make your head spin. It is much easier to look at the exhibit and understand it visually than it is to completely comprehend all the underlying causes. The curators reveal the impact of Cubism, Bauhaus, Surrealism, Mexican muralists, as well as primitive art and the power of myth. Even personal circumstances (such as Pollock’s alcoholism and Jungian analysis) are catalysts.
Sandler and Hall-Duncan trace the influences of organizations like the American Abstract Artists (AAA), formed in 1936 by over 60 abstract and nonobjective artists, The Ten, a 1935 group which included Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb (not to be confused with The Ten of 1897), and the loosely affiliated group of avant-garde artists who hung out together in Greenwich Village. This group included Stuart Davis, John Graham, Willem de Kooning and David Smith, according to Mr Sandler. Their early work will astound you. As Irving Sandler said ”each piece of art in the show is a high quality work in its own right.” The show enables us to recognize the struggles and developments taking place on canvas (or in steel) during this formative decade.
American scene painting held the stage in this country during the Thirties. The three dominant American Regionalists, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry, are all represented in the show. So are Reginald Marsh, Philip Evergood, Ben Shahn and Raphael Soyer – prominent urban realists. Sandler wrote, ”…above all, modernist artists rejected Regionalist and Social Realist paintings because they were convinced of their stylistic backwardness and artistic inferiority, and this provided solace of sorts in the face of the modernists’ lack of recognition.”
The Great Depression, the impact of the rise and fall of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project (1933 – 1943), the savagery of World War II, and European influences of modernism all led to the eventual rejection of American Regionalism and Social Realism on the part of American avant-garde artists. The exhibition puts the evidence of this rejection- especially the transformation of Jackson Pollock’s work, on display.
Jackson Pollock’s teacher at The Art Students League was Thomas Hart Benton. An early Pollock painting shows Benton’s influence on his pupil’s work. ”Cotton Pickers,” painted circa 1935 with the created with the support of the Federal Arts Project, was likely painted in the same year as Benton’s ”Strike, Fall River.” In the Pollock, curvilinear figures work in an open landscape that is charged with a mood of desolation. Pollock’s palette is darker and more restrained and the figures are more subdued than Benton’s energetic and perhaps more optimistic ones. According to Hall-Duncan, Benton considered Pollock the logical heir of Regionalism.
Then the student began to assert a new aesthetic. Pollock’s ”Man, Bull, Bird,” circa 1938 – 1941, was also executed for the WPA. In this bold painting we see the influence of European modernism. Another painting of the same period, ”Dancing Head,” goes even further towards an abandonment of objective art. Both paintings exude raw expressive energy that we associate with the later work of Jackson Pollock.
Mark Rothko, who came to the United States in 1913 at age ten, is one of the most recognized artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Rothko is represented by three paintings done between 1936 and 1944. The earliest, untitled ((two nudes), is a diminutive canvas measuring 161/8 by 20 inches. Rothko used a light palette of yellow, white and touches of ochre and burnt umber to show two female figures in an interior that has been simplified to rectangular shapes of open doors. Curiously we note that the figures are too tall to fit comfortably through the doorways without stooping.
A later painting, untitled 1939 – 40, still alludes to the figure, but this time the faces, breasts, hands and arms have been run through the Rothko blender, emerging as an amalgamated being placed in the framework of a window. Inspired by mythology and its emotional and primitive relevance to the destructive forces of human nature as exemplified by World War II, Rothko named himself and others of like mind ”The Mythmakers.” In this piece, the curvilinear outlines, the open eyes and pointing finger, the work is still restrained by rectangle of blue space behind the passionate figure(s).
In the third work by Rothko in the show, mixed media on paper done in 1944, Rothko clearly defines shapes but the figural elements have all but disappeared. It is a quiet, rather colorless piece that shows a transition towards simplified form.
Arshile Gorky was also a pivotal figure for . ”During the late thirties, he had created Cubist-inspired, flat-patterned abstractions composed largely of Miroesque biomorphic shapes. In 1941, he adopted automatism, one of the first of the New York modernists to do so, using it literally to melt Cubist design,” wrote Sandler.
”The Horns of the Landscape,” painted by Gorky in 1944, holds a prominent place at the show’s entrance. Vigorous dripping brush strokes of semi-transparent oil on a canvas measuring 30 by 40 inches and carry this work into expressionism. ”What was startlingly new was Gorky’s ability to endow Surrealist form – the biomorph- with an intensely personal and searingly evocative power,” wrote Hall-Duncan.
The exhibition is not huge, but with 61 pieces it is big enough to state its case eloquently. Nor does the show actually cross the line into the icons of Abstract Expressionism, that quintessentially American success story. The parameters of the exhibition are clearly laid out in the title of the show, so it should come as no surprise that you won’t see Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings or Mark Rothko’s colorfield abstractions. (However, seeing this show will make you want to see them again – and soon.) Every picture is there for a good reason. Copious wall notes next to the pieces on display give the viewer instant access to the curators’ intent.
Each work in the exhibition is reproduced in the catalogue, making it a complete record. The essays by Irving Sandler and Nancy Hall-Duncan are convincing and well supported. In addition, it includes a section of concise artists’ biographies of all the artists represented in the exhibition. The list of lenders to the exhibition includes many impressive sources – among them the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art – as well as several Universities, private collectors, and the trade. Only available in paperback, the catalogue, like the show, is well done. It is available from the museum store for $29.95 plus shipping. The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, One Museum Drive, can be reached at 203/869-0376.
The art innovations taking place in the United States during the 1936 – 46 decade were exploratory and courageous. That is what this exhibition is all about. When Pollock began pouring his famous paintings in the winter of 1946 -47, it was an evolutionary (as well as revolutionary) breakthrough with clear roots to the preceding decade.
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