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Abstract Expressionist New York at MoMA

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If you’ve always wanted to immerse yourself in the art and aesthetic world of painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, writers, and poets who put American art on the international map, Abstract Expressionist New York is an exhibition not to be missed.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Abstract Expressionism and MoMA were virtually synonymous. The Museum gave its stamp of approval to this quintessentially New York movement, and the movement made MoMA’s reputation as the museum of post-World War II modernism . Though MoMA went on to embrace post-60s art, Abstract Expressionism is still most closely associated with the Museum, and few can rival the depth of its collection. That is why it can now mount a major show of 250 Abstract Expressionist pieces drawn entirely from its own “closet.”

Glenn Lowry, Director, MoMA

The exhibit is divided into three sections and locations. The Big Picture takes up the museum’s entire fourth floor, with 100 paintings as well as 60 sculptures, drawings, prints and photographs. If your time is limited, this is where most of the blockbuster pieces are located. The galleries unfold chronologically, but a few painters –- Newman, Pollock, Rothko — receive the equivalent of one-person gallery shows of their “signature” work.

Barnett Newman, Onement, I, 1948

Jackson Pollack, One, Number 31, 1950

For those of us who grew up with many of the art works in this exhibit, strolling the fourth floor is a bit like attending a warm reunion with old friends. For those who come to the work with fresh eyes, it will be an education and a rare treat. But even old favorites can be seen afresh. And for me what was most fascinating about this exhibit – in addition to its array of show-stopping pieces – are the differences – not similarities — between artists who are lumped together under the “AbExNY” banner. Each is, almost without exception, an artist with a highly individualistic style and vision. The instantly recognizable vocabulary of Motherwell, for example, is completely different from that of Gorky, Guston, Gottlieb or Pollack.

Robert Motherwell, The Voyage, 1949

Arshile Gorky, Garden in Sochi, 1943

Adolph Gottlieb, Man Looking at Woman, 1949

Philip Guston, Edge of Town, 1969

Baziotes and Rivers, while somewhat “abstract,” continued to flirt with realism in their work. And Rothko, who in 1944 drew heavily upon the Surrealist tradition, invented an altogether new, luminous style six years later, which expanded the range of expression and emotion within the AbEx NY movement. It’s worth noting, too, that in 1952, the first Rothko to enter MoMA’s collection, No. 10, was so radical for its time that one of the Museum’s Trustees resigned in protest.

William Baziotes, Dwarf, 1947

Larry Rivers, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953

Mark Rothko, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944

Mark Rothko, No. 5/No.22, 1950

Also on the fourth floor is a memorable David Smith sculpture and the photographs of Aaron Siskind, whose Martha’s Vineyard 108 Gelatin Silver Print is a stunner.

David Smith, Australia, 1951

Aaron Siskind, Martha’s Vineyard 108, 1954

A section of MoMA’s third floor expands the exhibit. Ideas Not Theories: Artists and The Club, 1942-1962, focuses on the 8th Street-Greenwich Village milieu in which the movement flourished.

It brings together 100 works in a range of mediums, including printmaking, photography, architectural models, illustrated books and printed journals. A wall of black-and-white Rudy Burckhardt photos are particularly evocative of post-World War II New York.

Rudy Burckhardt, from an Album titled, “Photographs by Rudy Burckhardt; Sonnet by Edwin Denby,” 1946-47

Rock Paper Scissors, tucked away on the 2nd floor, rounds out the exhibit. There are some striking pieces of sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, and Dorothy Dehner.

Herbert Ferber, He Is Not A Man, 1950 (front);
Isamu Noguchi, My Pacific, 1942 (middle);
Louise Bourgeoise, Sleeping Figure, 1950 (rear)

Louise Nevelson, Ascending, 1951

Dorothy Dehner, Encounter, 1969

It’s a huge show and a lot to take in at one gulp. And more is coming between February and April 2011 in an exhibition of ten programs of films, also drawn exclusively from the Museum’s collection.

This is the kind of exhaustive show that only MoMA, which was so plugged into the AbEx NY scene for twenty years, and now commands unparalleled resources, could mount.

Check www.moma.org for a complete overview of events related to this show.

Abstract Expressionist New York at MoMA, October 3 – April 25, 2011

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