In 1975 the Baltimore Museum of Art included a number of Anne Truitt’s Arundel paintings in an exhibition. The works are white, starkly white, with a little white paint on top, and some marks in graphite. I’ve never seen one, so that’s all I know about them.
When they were exhibited at the BMA they caused something of a fuss. Truitt told the story in Daybook, her now-legendary journal:
… I encountered the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. He told me that there has been something of a clamor in Baltimore to the effect that the public’s money is being misspent placing on display in the city museum such meaningless works as the Arundel paintings. So vitriolic were these comments that the mayor of Baltimore telephoned to assure him that he stood behind the museum’s decisions.
Truitt was taken aback by this reaction. Later she found out that a Baltimore newspaperman had written a sarcastic review and that over the course of several successive Sundays the newspaper had piled on and on. In the final anti-Truitt, anti-abstract-art installment, the paper had vaguely suggested that the museum should lose municipal funding. That’s when the mayor of Baltimore called the BMA director, Tom Freudenheim, to express his support.
Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about Truitt’s experience in
1975 and about the response to abstraction now. Those of us who live in the art world
think nothing of abstraction. We’ve had 100 years to get used to it. Still, earlier in my lifetime it prompted mass civic agita in a then-major Eastern city.
And now! There are two ways of demonstrating how the public response to abstraction has changed. First, the fancy-pants way: This season northeastern museums are all about abstract painting. These shows are among the most anticipated of the year, both by critics (ahem) and by Joe and Jane from Islip.
The exhibitions include two painters beloved by the public for their representational work: Georgia O’Keeffe at the Whitney, and Claude Monet at MoMA. At the Guggenheim, a Wassily Kandinsky retrospective completes the rare opportunity to consider Monet’s late abstractions with Kandinsky’s experiments. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has never been shy about presenting smart, audience-challenging shows (see Newman, Barnett) and this season the museum brings us an Arshile Gorky retro. And here in Washington, the Hirshhorn launches the first Truitt retrospective since Walter Hopps’ Corcoran show in 1974. (It’s not just the northeast, either: Across the country even SFMOMA, the ’safest’ modern/contemporary museum around, is trumpeting its relationship with abstractionists in a fall show.) None of these museums are niche, hip contemporary art spaces. They’re all big museums with broad audiences. All these shows will draw big crowds.
That’s nice. But the best indication of how thoroughly abstract art has gone over is that the biggest, best-known National Football League team has used it to decorate and to gussy-up the ultimate mainstream-American, Joe Suburb, macho-man site imaginable: the ginormous new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The stadium features 14 works of contemporary abstraction by Olafur Eliasson, Franz Ackermann, Teresita Fernandez and more. (Here’s a complete list. At left: Mel Bochner.)
How thoroughly has abstract art won over middle-America? NBC’s Today show sent out the uber-bland everyman Al Roker for a tour of Cowboys Stadium art. A football fan who had been to the stadium-opening George Strait concert was so taken with a Gary Simmons mural that he Flickred how much he dug it. (Just as interesting is how thoroughly artists have been won over by the opportunity to present abstraction to the masses: Read Dave Muller’s comments on making a piece for Cowboys Stadium.)
In a way, a football arena is the ultimate test. Throughout the biggest stadium ever built in America, abstract art competes for fan attention with installations by Ford, Dr. Pepper, Mitsubishi and Pepsi. It’s as if abstraction has become a brand that can compete with anything.