Posted on 23 October 2012 | By Elaine A. King
American modernism is an artistic and cultural movement in the United States, starting at the turn of the 20th century. Its central period spanned the period between World War I and World War II; however it continued into the 21st century. Part I of this exhibition series, titled Abstraction in America, as well as Part II, was organized by Don Kimes, a talented painter, professor of art at American University, and director of the Visual Arts Program at Chautauqua Institution. In neither the first show, nor in Part II, did he attempt to compile a definitive survey of American abstract art. What is presented are selected works from the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, an institution dedicated to enhancing the understanding and appreciation of contemporary and modern art, affiliated with the Buffalo (NY) Fine Arts Academy.
Left: Mark Rothko (American, born Russia, 1903-1970). Orange and Yellow, 1956. Oil on canvas. Support: 91″ x 71″. Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1956. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society, New York. Photograph by Tom Loonan. artes fine arts magazine
The first exhibition in this series investigated abstract art in the United States, focusing on work produced from the 1940s to the 1960s. This is a critical time in the U.S.—as well as for the evolution of Modernism—as the epicenter of the art world shifted from Europe to the United States, both because of the physical devastation wreaked on European cities by World War II and the fact that many talented artists and intellectuals fled the Continent due to the threat posed by the Nazis. During this post-war period, New York City supplanted Paris to become the ‘capital’ of the modern art world. By the mid-1960s a new generation of artists was rejecting abstract work as the established canon. For them, well-known art critic Clement Greenberg’s argument that modernist art excludes “anything outside itself,” had become outdated and irrelevant. Furthermore many artists, art and its many institutions were being viewed as elite and removed from the changing social time. Painting in the purest sense, too, lost its appeal. Yet, despite this, numerous artists continued to explore its language and contribute to the ongoing discourse of American art, which prevails to this day.
Above right: Arshile Gorky (American, born Armenia, 1904-1948). The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb, 1944. Oil on canvas. Support: 73 1/4″ x 98 3/8″. Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1956. © 2012 Estate of Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society, New York. Photograph by Tom Loonan.
Part III of this series, opening in the summer of 2013, will include contemporary artists whose work continues to impact and expand the language of abstract art. These works help to clarify what Fredric Jameson expressed in his celebrated writings on postmodernism, that there is a significant need to acknowledge an intermediary concept to characterize the cultural products of the ‘transition’ between modernism and postmodernism.
Part II. Shifting Realm of Abstraction
Today we live in a hyper-cultural society in which one is immersed in an environment technologically soaked with stimulation and instant gratification. As a result we continuously yearn for the bigger, the better, the newer, the more spectacular and the more violent. The box office spectacle, “The Hunger Games,” is a case in point, as Alonso Duralde writes, “The movie dazzles you with its bravado and moves fast enough to keep you from asking too many questions about its implausibility.” 
The exhibition Abstraction in America, Part II — The 1970s and 1980s is the second in a series of three displays that examines the realm of abstract art in the United States as it evolved from the onset of the twentieth century to our present era. This art offers the viewer a safe haven from the day-to-day noise of everyday reality. However when thinking about abstract art it is essential to realize that it not a twentieth-century occurrence. It has been a part of our visual language since primitive time and one can observe naïve graphic gestures found in prehistoric cave paintings and stylized hieroglyphs in Egyptian funereal tombs, Chinese calligraphy, Islamic motifs, graphic symbols in medieval science and religious rituals. Much of the art of earlier cultures – signs and marks on pottery, textiles, and inscriptions and paintings on rock – were simple, geometric and linear forms that held symbolic meaning throughout their decorative surfaces. Even though most observers cannot comprehend the significance of the varied shapes and marks on the historical artifacts nevertheless take pleasure in their visual attractiveness. At this basic visual level abstract art communicates.
Above, left: Richard Diebenkorn (American, 1922-1993), Untitled, 1972. Tempera, watercolor, colored chalk and charcoal on pieced paper, 27 3/4″ x 19 1/4″ Collection Allbright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Gift of the artist, 1978.
The works on paper in this display were chosen from the permanent collection of the Albright Knox Art Gallery. Don Kimes, Professor, Director, Studio Art Program, American University and Artistic Director VACI, Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution, made the selections for this exhibition. Kimes said, “I deliberately wanted to show works on paper because artists acts on paper exemplify the questions, the struggles and the investigative search in a way that is far less visible in the final work of art.”
When examining abstract work, it is significant to realize that abstraction is a specialized visual language that artists employ to make compositions autonomous from specific visual reference. Non-objective art does not contain decipherable subject matter but rather an artist’s manipulation of the elements of art—color, shape, line, form, space, value and texture. Often this art is referred to as abstract, nonfigurative, non-objective and nonrepresentational —all are loosely related terms and although they are similar, they can differ in method and meaning. Simplifying and distilling elements creates an arrangement that depends primarily on its own intrinsic outward appearance rather than narrative content. Abstract work, be it a painting, work on paper or a sculpture, is the subdued province in the arts that affords viewers a slow experience instead of a quick drive by gaze. Unlike the hyper-culture of today, characterized by its flamboyant, and bizarre manifestations, abstraction never intends to dazzle the viewer but instead entices one to pause and examine what is presented.
This varied collection of work demonstrates a fertile variety of ideas and approaches to mark making by painters, sculptors and others working in several mediums. Abstract art with its realm of landmark movements in both Europe and the USA and its attempts to clarify the concerns of art became threatened in the later decades of the twentieth century as the foundations of Modernism began to erode and its canon was being rejected by many who refuted formalist ideals. Some historians and critics refer to the art from the late 60s to the early 80s as late modernism. Artists at this time reacted against certain aspects of modernism yet fully developed the conceptual potentiality of the modernist enterprise. In the late 1960s Robert Pincus-Witten came up with the term Post-Minimalism to explain tactful art that had content and contextual overtones that rejected the purism of minimalism. Modernism had become a too oppressive academy for younger artists who found its values devoid of spiritual essence or intellectual rigor. Moreover numerous artists felt the geometric idiom of Minimalism inappropriate as they rethought the functions of art in society. Artists’ experimentation throughout this period was necessary to liberate art from the rigid autocratic dogma imposed on art by Clement Greenberg and the curators and critics who posited his theories about the formal facts about painting and sculpture throughout the sixties.
Above, right: Susan Rothenberg (American, born 1945), Untitled No. 84, 1979, acrylic and charcoal on paper, 2518″ x 20 1/4″ Collection Allbright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. James S. Ely Fund, 1979.
During this complex and contradictory period new values and ideas began to inform contemporary art. The relaxation of categories and boundaries characterize this period, with no prevailing style, or heroes, and often several genres became assimilated into a single work of art. The absence of any prominent style or direction is evident throughout this display. Much of the work from this period represents an extension of the journey into the self, a manifestation of the consciousness, and examinations of ideas beyond the visual object. Foremost the idea became the expression with the form giving way to content. Without being aware of it, the artists of this time were spinning off in multiple directions and their innovative work paved the way for expanding the discourse of the visual arts for decades to come, as well as the language of abstract art. The need for the artists to go beyond a single criterion allowed for the return of creative materialism and permitted artists to transcend its rhetorical bondage of the sixties. Additionally the inventive art from this period contributed to the evolution of Post-Modernism and its emerging multifaceted range of work. Even so, it is essential to keep in mind that abstract art does not purport to be either a social alarm system or a theatrical spectacle reverberating with psychological intensity. It is not a vehicle for social or political change, even if the original avant-garde artists broke new aesthetic ground back in the early days of Modernism—including Malevich, Kandinsky, and Mondrian, who aspired for utopian and spiritual beliefs.
Left: Beverly Pepper (American, born 1924), Untitled (No. 1), 1982. Graphite and charcoal on paper, 39 3/8″ x 27 3/8″ Collection Allbright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, 1983.
Richard Diebenkorn was a significant painter whose work bridged the style of Henri Matisse with that of Abstract Expressionism and the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. After returning from Europe in mid-1965 he began altering his direction away from previous Modernist ideals. In 1967 he returned to abstraction with a distinct personal style that radically departed from his abstract expressionist method. His “Ocean Park” series with its unique color geometric linear style became his most famous work, resulting in more then 140 paintings and the piece “Untitled”, 1972 (see above, left) evinces this new direction.
Artwork that takes liberties, altering for instance color and form in ways that are conspicuous and linked to a natural reference can be said to be partially abstract. Figurative abstractions are abstractions or simplifications of reality, where detail is eliminated from recognizable objects leaving only the essence of recognizable forms. We see this in the works of Susan Rothenberg’s visceral studies of horses in which she introduces imagery with a hint of minimalist abstraction while bringing a new sensitivity to figuration (above, right).
Beverly Pepper’s work discloses an ambiguity between abstraction and figuration. Since the late seventies she has engaged in a dialogue between sculpture and its natural environment. The drawing “Untitled (No.1)”1982-83 (above, left) demonstrates Pepper’s process of working out concepts for her three-dimensional work depicting autonomous forms grouped together. Although entirely abstract, the two verticals suggest figural forms despite this not being Pepper’s intention.
Right: Mia Westerlund Roosen (American, born 1942), Untitled, 1981, oil and pastel on paper, 25 3/4″ x 41″ Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Charles Clifton Fund, 1982.
In the 70s Bryan Hunt engaged in the type of dialogue with Modernist tradition that was unimaginable. His experiments with scale, texture and composition challenged some of the strictest Modernist taboos. The mixed media drawing, “Bequia IV”, 1981 captures his thinking process and reveals the evolving visualization for his massive yet elegant sculptures.
Renowned for her camel sculptures, Nancy Graves also made aerial landscapes based on maps of the moon and similar sources—the piece “Weke”, 1977 discloses her interest in nature and the melding with her personal and gestural abstract style.
Mia Westerlund is another sculptor who began in her career in the late 1960’s when Minimalism was the prevailing, stylistic movement. Westerlund, as did Graves, chose the organic over the industrial and geometric aesthetic. Her work straddles the natural world and the realm of abstraction and she claims that her interest in dance subtly evinces an organic sensibility in both her drawings and sculptures (above right).
The work of Charles Clough, a Buffalo native and tour de force in its visual arts scene, produced an expression of blots of disparate colors, and multiple forms. For him it is an aesthetic utility of paint blots versus carefully delineated forms. He wrote, “The blot, “will suggest different ideas to different persons,” wherefore it serves to “enlarge the powers of invention.” This is evident in “Universal Soul Doll Guts”, 1970 a lyrical abstractionist piece that is not realistic yet conveys essences of emotion, sound, or spiritual experience.
Left: Charles Clough (American, born 1951), Universal Soul Doll Guts, 1979, enamel and paper collage on paper, 19 3/4″ x 13 7/8″ Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY> Charles W. Goodyear Fund, 1979. Copyright 1979 Charles Clough.
The art of Mel Bochner, Richard Serra and Donald Sultan’s bears no trace of any anything recognizable and their art demonstrates a more cerebral approach to abstraction. Bochner’s drawings Three Times Four, 1973 is from his rigorous fourteen part series titled Non-Verbal Structures, with each the same size, each in charcoal and some with white gouache. The image discloses his enduring fascination with the tension between perceptual and conceptual experience. Only formal, nonverbal structure is an important concern for Bochner who in this series moved shapes around on the page until their ultimate relationships were set. Richard Serra’s “T.W.U, #12”, 1980 a large-scale formal drawing on paper articulates the tension of space, weight and gravity prevailing in his site-sculpture of the same title. In Donald Sultan’s drawing, “Lemon and Egg”, 1986 (right), two ethereal interconnected black shapes dominate this composition however it is only the title that alludes to a recognizable reference. In the work of all three artists, the language of minimalism is the faint visual vehicle that transports each artist’s specific concepts and processes.
Informed by the vitality of conceptual art, Andrew Topolski employed the languages of science and the harmonic music to produce his graceful abstract drawings. According to Charlotta Kotik, “In the early 1980s the drawings were characterized by using large geometric shapes rendered in primary colors. In these the admiration and understanding of the principles of geometry and consequently, constructivism were defined and a solid base for subsequent work was established…” 
Right: Donald K. Sultan (American, born 1951), Lemon and Egg, 1986, charcoal on paper, 60″ x 48″ Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Armand J. Castellani, 1986. Copyright 1986 Donald Sultan.
Ambiguous space becomes the dense arena for David Reed’s inventive surfaces. Incongruous textures and gestures coalesce in a field, reminiscent of filmstrips taken from a science fiction drama. In “Untitled,” 1976, Reed engages complexity with a sense of purposeful motion and contrast. Reed’s abstract work continues to cross disciplines and represents his engagement with everyday culture and his interest in film.
The primary impact of Peter Plagens’ art is intended to be visual. In the mixed media drawing “Untitled,” 1977 (below, right), the underlying elements floating in the subtle background field silently interact with an assertive dark shape. The black partial disc strategically placed against a delicate ground filled with subtle linear marks requires no words or point of reference—it simply beckons one to step closer so to discover and experience.
Left: Andrew Topolski (American, born 1952), EAD/d Resonance, 1982, carbon stick, gold leaf and transfer tape on paper, 26″ x 40″ Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Sherman S. Jewett Fund, 1982.
The youngest artist in this show is Keith Haring who regrettably died at the early age of 31 from AIDS-related complications. He made his mark by drawing graffiti in the underground Metro of New York’s bustling transit system in the 1980s. Haring’s deft style of rapturous simplicity depicts a range of personal hieroglyphs, stemming from movies and books of his youth. “Untitled,” 1982 (below, left), with its intricate and broad bold strokes discloses a rhythmic carpet of imagery. The coexistence of figurative creatures integrated into a highly stylized field of abstract patterning, draws the eye in however, this optical celebration only conveys a cryptic message.
The most recent work in this selection is by Jane Hammond, a painter who became known for incorporating an inventory of signs and symbols taken from various books, magazines and prints into a thickly painted, abstract field. However, “Untitled,” 1987, is an anomaly in her oeuvre since it is devoid of figurative representation. This intricately intertwined colorful composition resembles the all-over gestural linearity of Jackson Pollock’s abstract paintings. Hammond’s energetic layering of space, line and color results in a complex visceral abstract arrangement that is more akin to a Modernist aesthetic rather then to her later idiosyncratic Post-Modern work of the 1990s.
Right: Peter Plagens (American, born 1941), Untitled, 1977, mixed media on paper, 29″ x 41″ Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY Charles W. Goodyear Fund, 1978.
To understand and appreciate abstract art, it is crucial to understand some of its problems. It is not to be perceived in the same way as representational art although many will attempt to view it that way. Because it deprives the viewer of the familiar or recognizable perhaps it is not widely popular with a larger public. Since it is not approachable as narrative art is and possesses an open-endlessness of interpretation, allowing for multiple readings, abstract art can be frustrating to many viewers. We live in a society that desires immediate answers, and we are not very tolerant of vagueness. Abstract art provides viewers to a unique aesthetic that continues to change and adapt to the ever-shifting era in which it is made.
Abstraction in the USA from the turn of the twentieth century was rooted in Modernism and evolved from the various movements dominated in Europe. The majority of artists in this exhibition grew up on Clement Greenberg’s  narrow definition of what art could be and its separation of “high art” from life in general and popular culture.
Left: Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990), Untitled, 1982, ink on paper, 38″ x 50″ Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Edmund Hayes Fund, 1982.
From the time Vasari wrote Lives of the Artists in the Sixteenth Century, art history had been written as a progression from one style to the next. By the close of the 1960s, this no longer held true. The 1970s, sometimes called the “pluralistic 70s,” saw the prelude of body art, conceptual art, process art, land art, performance art, feminist art, and others. At times this work is classified as part of one larger post-minimal movement, nevertheless what is most significant is the very fact of their multiplicity. The eclecticism in this assortment of works on paper demonstrates the artists’ disruption of the Modernist canon. Their openness to disparate sources of content and approach undermined not only the narrow definition of abstraction but also encapsulated the intense, volatile socio-political environment they were living in. No longer were there single answers—this was a time of transformation that reflected a radically changing cultural and social landscape.
By Elaine A. King, Contributing Writer © 2012
Professor, History of Art, Theory & Museum Studies
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
 Crystall Bell, ‘Hunger Games’ Reviews: “Critics React To The Anticipated Film “The Huffington Post, 3/22/2012.
 Charlotta Kotik, in “Andrew Topolski”, Galerie von der tann, Berlin catalog, 1991.
 Clement Greenberg helped to articulate a concept of medium specificity. He posited that there were inherent qualities specific to each different artistic medium, and part of the Modernist project involved creating artworks that were more and more ‘about’ their particular medium. In the case of painting, the two-dimensional reality of their facture lead to an increasing emphasis on flatness in contrast with the illusion of depth commonly found in painting since the Renaissance and the invention of pictorial perspective.
Above, left: Richard Serra, T.W.V. #12 (1980), paintstick on paper, 50″ x 38″ Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Edmund Hayes Fund, 1981.
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