Sunday, January 4, 2009

Smells Like American Post-War Spirit at the Robert Miller Gallery

NOTE:  The show is extended through today, Sunday, January 4th.

Walking through "Beyond the Canon: Small Scale American Abstraction, 1945-1965" feels odd -- oddly comforting.  The feeling resonates with our hopeful horizon for the new year, more specifically the short, 16 days we have left until Barack Obama's inauguration.  I know it's not the same.  We know more now; we know our indulgences, excesses, corruption and shortsightedness.  But, I think it was comforting to see so much work, by so many different artists working in a time when feeling hopeful and idealistic about American was more easily possible.

Overlooking Young's link of the show's time period to our current "time of national self-examination," Roberta Smith focused her review in The New York Times initially on questioning the accuracy of the show's title.  It seems ironic now (and probably did then, too) that the wild, inventive, explosion of painting that took place in Post-War America -- driven by ideas about breaking from European tradition, Existentialism, and Freudian thought -- attracted the controlling grip of two critics, Harold Rosenberg (1906-78) and Clement Greenberg (1909-94.)  They apparently needed to own, limit, and otherwise dominate a phenomenon that took its own shape and size despite their efforts.

It also seems troubling that even now at the distance of nearly 70 years (if you start in 1940) their "standards" are still such a strong point of contention in talking about this fertile period.  For example, the curator, Amy L. Young, states  her motive for assembling the work in "Beyond the Canon" is to break the hold of Rosenberg and Greenberg and "recover our diverse heritage."  Is it that the critics were so emphatic that even Smith is compelled to address the era's metrics? I'll add that the exhibition, and related documentation, at The Jewish Museum in May 2008, "Action/Abstraction: Pollack, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976" is a good point of reference in these matters.

But, back to the show itself.  I agree with Smith "Its relatively unfiltered view of art history is a wonderful thing to sort through."  Perhaps that is more to the point.  Labels aside, seeing these works in person, beautifully installed, allows us to make our own connections.  While the works are mostly small, there is a variety of painted surfaces: canvas both course and fine, masonite, board, cardboard, and paper that come into focus while cataloging the range of  media: oil, acrylic, watercolor, pencil, charcoal, collage and the variety of applications:  brushed, dabbed, smeared, whipped, scraped, splashed, and dripped.  

My list of favorites closely corresponds with Smith's.  I'll add a work on paper by Sam Francis, a larger oil by Philip Guston, a blue/green work by Ad Reinhardt (one of the only hard-edged abstract works) and a small work by Melville Price.  I found that despite Young's intent to fill out the picture with unknown artists, many of the most striking pieces were by artists we know well.  I realize its it not so much that the paintings bring forth a nostalgia for our country's earlier days of optimism, its that the works themselves, apart from where they may fit into any given categories, embody a spirit of confident, risk-taking.  I can almost hear a giddy, collective, "why the hell not?" walking  through the gallery.

Image above by Philip Guston, "Slope II," 1961, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 40" x  30", courtesy of the Robert Miller Gallery.

Related Resources:
New Yorker review of "Action/Abstraction," The Jewish Museum
New York Times review of "Action/Abstraction" The Jewish Museum
YouTube video of "Beyond the Canon" (starting at 6 minutes, 14 seconds)

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