Skip to main content

Abstract Expressionism at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Beyond

(Exhibit closed.) REVIEW. Abstract Expressionist New York, a sprawling exhibition at MoMA that is drawn entirely from the museum's collection and fills the entire fourth floor plus two additional focus exhibits on the second and third floors, presents the opportunity to be surprised and see the world new again. Shifted to center stage, the paintings that once rocked the art world sixty years ago become important once more, not just another chapter, albeit an important one, in art history textbooks. Much time has ticked away since those boozy, smoky and chatty New York days that gave rise to the drips and the zips, and as most of the artists departed the big scene, a mythology about their lives and work overshadowed their real stories. But even as they became myths, new art movements and artists took their place. MoMA's exhibition includes a section about these pop upstarts - Johns, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Rosenquist, and above all, Warhol, waiting in the wings.

Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956)
One: Number 31, 1950. 1950
Oil and enamel paint on canvas
8' 10" x 17' 5 5/8" (269.5 x 530.8 cm)
Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund (by exchange)
© 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is highly conducive for mythmaking because of his physicality, roots in the American West, and untimely tragic death, yet other biographies are equally fascinating. The mythologizing is an ongoing practice. Look at Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan's popular 2004 biography of Willem de Kooning or the recent Broadway hit, Red, by playwright John Logan and starring Alfred Molina as the fierce Mark Rothko. While the vast MoMA exhibition, organized by curator Ann Temkin, invites a new look at the work through group displays, solo artist rooms, and thematic presentations, it's still difficult sometimes to see the work through the haze of hagiography.

Franz Kline (American, 1910–1962)
Chief. 1950
Oil on canvas, 58 3/8" x 6' 1 1/2" (148.3 x 186.7 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David M. Solinger
© 2010 The Franz Kline Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
In such an ambitious exhibit, one stretched almost to the breaking point, abstract expressionism becomes a rather slippery catchall term in light of its varieties on display. While Pollock might fit well under most meanings of the phrase, an artist like Barnett Newman points to minimalism, a rather different project. Still, by assembling the works close together, it's possible to see more unifying marks and themes than differences and even to feel the camaraderie that characterized the cultural moment in New York City in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. In galleries that showcase works by several artists, especially a strong room that gathers paintings by Willem de Kooning, Alfred Leslie, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers, Sam Francis, Lee Krasner, and Jack Tworkov, the shared excitement of yet different artistic directions becomes most apparent.



Lee Krasner (American, 1908–1984)
Gaea. 1966
Oil on canvas, 69" x 10' 5 1/2" (175.3 x 318.8 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Kay Sage Tanguy Fund
© 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
While MoMA has taken the work out of storage for all to see, and yes, it's an impressive display, it does beg the question, "Are many great abstract expressionist works elsewhere?" Of course there are. As prized and necessary objects for their collections, representing the first most important school of American art to gain international importance, many museums own abstract expressionist paintings. While MoMA may house a formidable collection of abstract expressionist work, other museums could brag about significant works, too. The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection at the Met, formed primarily in the early 1950s, has been recognized, according to the Met's site, "as one of the preeminent collections of Abstract Expressionist art in the country."(site) Jackson Pollock had his first solo exhibit at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of the Century Gallery, and the Guggenheim houses significant works by Pollock, including the early drip paintings, Alchemy and Enchanted Forest (1947), and Ocean Greyness from 1953. The latter is characterized by the museum as "one of Pollock’s last great works."(site) Even the Whitney Museum, in spite of its realist bent, began acquiring major works of abstract expressionism in the late 1950s. The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. owns Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), that the museum describes as "one of Pollock's most important 'drip' paintings." (site) Regarding other artists, MoMA might have some excellent paintings by Mark Rothko, but the museum does not come anywhere near the National Gallery of Art's collection of 300 paintings and 600 drawings


Mark Rothko (American, born Latvia. 1903-1970)
No. 3/No. 13. 1949
Oil on canvas
7' 1 3/8" x 65" (216.5 x 164.8 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Bequest of Mrs. Mark Rothko through 
The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The list of museums with significant works of abstract expressionism extends to many other cities, especially those with rising economic and political clout in the postwar world. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY became a major player in the 1950s and 1960s with commitment to the new art, hosting the major exhibition, Expressionism in American Painting, in the spring of 1952. In fact, the relatively recent Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 2008, drew heavily on the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Unlike MoMA's current exhibit, it didn't aspire to set forth a comprehensive chronology, but it did offer necessary comparisons and debates. Go beyond New York State and find excellent examples of abstract expressionist work in Dallas, Munich, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Paris, Pittsburgh, and many other places.

These examples from other museums should not take away from MoMA, an institution with an established if sometime fitful relationship to the artists of the New York School, but it should add some pressure for them to offer a point of view or argument in its presentation. The satellite exhibits at MoMA make excellent arguments. Rock Paper Scissors, on the second floor, focuses on the various materials and mediums - wood, paper, etchings, crayon, etc. - that interested the artists, and the relationships of the physical materials to ideas such as the nature of premodern art or the subconscious. Ideas Not Theories: Artists and The Club, 1942-1962, presented on the third floor, puts the "New York" back into the exhibition by emphasizing the importance of meetings at The Club and the multi-media and inter-media nature of the New York School. Yes, John Cage and Morton Feldman are very much a part of this world. The fourth floor, the main show, Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture, is presented with some visual exuberance, and includes more sculpture than usual, but with perhaps too much faith that the big paintings can speak for themselves. Fortunately, several of them do fine. They do not need wall text or even critic Clement Greenberg to explain to us their meanings.

Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture
Through April 25, 2011 4th Floor
Abstract Expressionist New York: Rock Paper Scissors
Through February 11, 2011 2nd Floor
Abstract Expressionist New York: Ideas Not Theories: Artists and The Club, 1942-1962
Through February 28, 2011 3rd Floor

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), 11 W. 53rd St.

Images courtesy The Museum of Modern Art.

Comments

I often turn to you for my NYC fixes, Teri, but when you combine NYC with art, I almost OD. Great, thoughful coverage of what sounds like a satisfying exhibit (and one I'd not heard of). I was relieved to see that the main show is up well into April. Maybe we'll get back in time for it.
Teri Tynes said…
Thanks, Terry! I had to think about the exhibit, because in part, I remember fondly some of the AbEx paintings I've seen elsewhere. I know this is a good show but not a definite one.

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

The High Line and Chelsea Market: A Good Pairing for a Walk

(revised 2017) The advent of spring, with its signs of growth and rebirth, is apparent both on the High Line , where volunteers are cutting away the old growth to reveal fresh blooms, and inside the Chelsea Market, where new tenants are revitalizing the space. A walk to take in both can become an exploration of bounty and surprise, a sensual walk of adventure and sustenance. A good pairing for a walk: The High Line and Chelsea Market Walking the High Line for a round trip from Gansevoort to W. 30th and then back again adds up to a healthy 2-mile walk. Regular walkers of the elevated park look for an excuse to go there. Especially delightful is showing off the park, a model of its kind, to visitors from out of town. A stroll through Chelsea Market. Time check. If you haven't stopped into Chelsea Market lately, you may want to take a detour from the High Line at the stairs on W. 16th St. and walk through the market for a quick assessment or a sampling. Among the sampli

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

At the New Moynihan Train Hall, and the Zen of Going Nowhere

After slowly wandering around the Moynihan Train Hall , opened earlier this year in the James A. Farley Post Office Building across from Penn Station, an Amtrak worker approached me and asked if he could help with directions. “No,” I replied, “I’m just here to look at the station.”  Moynihan Train Hall, between Eighth Avenue, Ninth Avenue, 31st Street, and 33rd Street in Midtown Manhattan I wasn’t taking a train anywhere, not an Amtrak train to Philadelphia or to Boston. I was here to look at this impressive, even enlightening building. The architectural design is somewhat restrained and serious. Bright signage at the Moynihan Train Hall At a time when the idea of actual travel is just picking up, for some New Yorkers like myself, just the novelty of seeing a new transportation project in the city seems to suffice. It’s like mental preparation for taking an actual trip.  Looking up I remember catching Amtrak trains at the old Penn Station, not the beautiful and monumental edifice that

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det