Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Five thoughts from MoMA’s ‘Abstract Expressionist New York’

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  1. I guess Barnett Newman is here because the show is not titled “Abstract Expressionists in New York.” Interesting side effect of seeing Newman surrounded by so much big, gestural, expressionist, abstract painting: He looks both grandiose and self-important (I wonder: knowledge of biography seeping into what my eyes see?) and also a little bit like a self-confident contrarian. It works.
  2. Speaking of the show’s title, it’s pretty clear. So then what is a Clyfford Still painting made in Richmond, Va. and a Sam Francis painting not made in New York (Big Red (1953, at right) was likely made in Paris — Francis never was a New Yorker) doing here? Curator Ann Temkin tries to explain this away in the show’s publication by noting that the show’s title is something of a framework from which she felt free to wander. OK, but the title is also false. By including the Still and the Francis, Temkin asserts that abex is New York and New York is abex. That’s not true. Still, who curator and museum director Jim Demetrion asserted was the first abstract expressionist, developed his abex style in the West and later, briefly, in Virginia. Francis was an American expat in Paris. There’s nothing wrong with the local museum doing a local show, but it’s cheating to include non-locals in a local show to pretend their work is New York’s. (It also presents — or at least suggests — a fictional art history.)
  3. One of the great things about a show such as this is that it suggests other shows. Such as: There are a bunch of super Adolph Gottlieb ‘grid paintings’ in MoMA’s collection. What impact did Gottlieb’s grids have on his contemporaries and the next generation or two? Also: The generation after the abexers on view here had to find a way out of abex. I’d love to see a rigorously historical show that started with abex works by Chuck Close, Robert Irwin, Richard Diebenkorn, Donald Judd, etc., and that followed their work as they shook free of the dominant paradigm.
  4. I think the most exciting moment in the exhibition comes in what are effectively the third and fourth galleries of the show. Before then, the painters in the show were painting on parts of canvases, with certain parts of the canvas intended as the traditional focus. Somewhere in those two galleries, full-field painting emerges, and quickly wins. Sure, this is a slightly fictional presentation — I’ve covered this previously — but it’s still pretty dramatic to see ‘happen’ on gallery walls.
  5. The exhibition effectively ends with this figurative Philip Guston painting. I understand that. It’s a reasonable choice. But I think this would have been a better ‘ending.’
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  1. I think Rauschenberg’s “Monogram” would have been even better, as it sits on the floor and, thus, knocks the primacy of the “large wall” so beguiling to the AIs.

  2. Giovanni says:

    I would LOVE to see a show of Abstract Expressionism by artists from outside of New York; I know that Chicago and the East Coast had many great ones. I also think an exhibition of minority/female/gay Abstract Expressionist artists would be tremendous. While flawed, Ann Eden Gibson’s book “Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics” offers a great starting point for an alternative history of the movement.

  3. Amy says:

    #5: “The exhibition effectively ends with this figurative Philip Guston painting.” — could you link to a picture of the Guston painting your referencing?

  4. […] Green at Modern Art Notes is right to point out the fallacy of the show’s title: this isn’t all NYC work, and not all the artists are from NYC. […]

  5. Emily Larsen says:

    I would love to see an exhibition that focused on artists origins in abex and their growth out of it.

  6. Yancey Arts says:

    Interesting post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Abstract expressionism is one of my favorite style of painting because of its emotional value.

  7. […] “Abstract Expressionist New York,” but that show is notable in part for playing fast-and-very-loose with geography. That’s about as close as One gets to being “in” New York […]

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