Jackson Pollock broke the ice, Willem de Kooning once said, but many artists were making nonrepresentational art before Pollock’s mid-century breakthrough. All of them get their day in court in a sweeping new rehang at the Museum of Modern Art.
MoMA has reinstalled its incomparable collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings in an exhibition that takes over the museum’s entire fourth floor through April 25. The celebration of this crucial episode in American cultural life is an unrivaled, unexpurgated look at the art of Pollock, de Kooning, Mark Rothko and 25 of their colleagues.
Spanning from the early 1940s into the late ’60s, these heroic works have never looked fresher. It’s not so much that grime had soiled them as they were beclouded by decades of abstruse theories and the copious footnotes of academia. These works have been psychoanalyzed, described as propaganda tools of the Cold War, accused of being tinged by misogyny and put through the semiotics mill. Along the line, it became unfashionable to admit the truth: They are beautiful.
Besides tracing the early years of Ab-Ex, reviewing its influence on a second generation of practitioners and hinting at the endgame of the few practitioners who outlived the others, the exhibition features monographic galleries devoted to six masters: Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Barnett Newman, Philip Guston and Ad Reinhardt. MoMA owns so many masterpieces, including de Kooning’s infamous Woman, I, Pollock’s classic One: Number 31, 1950 and Arshile Gorky’s Diary of a Seducer, that it’s difficult to grasp that this is not a loan show.
From the outset of this new installation, you’ll find all sorts of surprises. The first room has plenty of diminutive works by Robert Motherwell, Hans Hofmann and Guston, all of whom are identified with larger effects. Then when you see the Pollocks hanging in a long, rectangular gallery, you’ll realize that they were practically shoe-horned for years in their old room. (Ann Temkin, the chief curator of the museum’s Painting and Sculpture Department, has left ample space between every work in the show.) And the space where they once were has become a jewel box. It now displays Barnett Newmans, ranging from the epic Vir Heroicus Sublimis, a 17-foot, 9-inch long expanse of rosy red with two skinny stripes the artist called zips, to The Wild, a brushy, Indian red sliver that is less than 2 inches wide.
There also are the peculiar cases of Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb, two sublime Modern masters whose art is better known from reproductions than solo shows. Motherwell’s and Gottlieb’s understated, elegant paintings, replete with sign-language-like forms and unorthodox hues, haven’t attracted the kind of champions that burnish reputations. This will probably now change. Seen in depth, both are the dark horses of this display. (Expect their auction prices to set new records.)
Rather than being left in storage, where many of the canvases currently on view at MoMA have languished for decades, paintings by, say, Theodoros Stamos, Norman Lewis and Richard Pousette-Dart are finally getting their due (even if they feel a tad like warm-up acts for the big guns).
De Kooning emerges as the wild card. His 1960 A Tree in Naples is a work of lyricism, nothing like the acres of tremulous, anxiety-fraught canvases he inspired. As for members of the generation that followed in his wake, here represented by Alfred Leslie, Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan, their large, fluid canvases are knockouts deserving overdue attention.
At the exhibition, you’ll be immersed in radiant, broad fields of color by Rothko, Still and Gottlieb; and intrigued by the dashing brushwork of Bradley Walker Tomlin and Franz Kline. There are also the elegant inventions of Gorky, in which, if you have the patience and wherewithal, you can decipher his whiplash lines and patches of color as pastoral landscapes and dreamlike reveries. As for the old line about Abstract Expressionism’s angst, it’s never seemed a bigger shibboleth.
WILLIAM M. GRISWOLD, the director of the Morgan Library and Museum, is billing the current show of Roy Lichtenstein’s drawings as “a milestone for the Morgan, our first monographic exhibition of a contemporary artist.” Ha. Lichtenstein is a Modern master who executed these deadpan interpretations of everyday subjects, echoed in titles like Girl with Accordion, Step-on Can with Leg and Keds, almost a half-century ago. The drawings have already seen the light in a luxe coffee-table book published in 1969 and in a works-on-paper retrospective devoted to the Pop artist held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987. This round, Lichtenstein’s 69 artworks fill a gallery that often displays Old Master drawings. Perhaps that explains why the show seemed such a breakthrough to the Morgan.
But is it? Though known far better for his bright paintings, during a career that spanned five decades–Lichtenstein died in 1997 at the age of 73–the artist created more than 3,000 drawings. The group at the Morgan date from his early years, when he, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg and a few others introduced Pop Art. The works occupy a special niche: They are independent works rather than studies for paintings. Think of them as Roy Lichtenstein screen tests.
During a period when abstraction ruled, Lichtenstein made representational images. Then living in New Jersey and teaching at Douglass College, he famously culled his themes from comic books about romance and war; these sheets largely portray food (baked potato, cup of coffee, bread and jam) and household objects (a couch, a piano, a ball of twine).
Lichtenstein viewed his world in tight focus, and he rendered it in a state of flux. His men and women are caught midstream in various activities–playing an accordion, using a chest expander, bathing. Though they are inanimate, you yourself want to sit on his couch, play his piano, zip the zipper.
Shunning the overwrought, over-the-top style of second-generation Abstract Expressionism, the Pop maestro isolated his understated figures in the center of his drawings and paintings. Once he squared up the material he appropriated from advertisements found in the Yellow Pages and want ads, he added a hint of texture and shadow by incorporating Benday dots that also suggested the work was executed by a machine rather than an artist. The type of tools he used–it took him a few years to find the right ones–are on view in display cases at the Morgan alongside source materials.
As Lichtenstein became more confident as an artist, the drawings grew more complex and detailed. Temple of Apollo has a foreground as well as a background. Alka Seltzer deploys plenty of pop-pop and fizz-fizz. More confidently, he covered a large sheet of paper with geometric shapes and elements that are as much the signature look of a Lichtenstein as his blond, blue-eyed comic-book heroines.
Later, Lichtenstein came to realize his independent drawings needed color. (He once told an interviewer he visited supermarkets to see which packages jumped off the shelves.) There’s only a hint of color in a few of these works from the ’60s: a pat of yellow butter, a posterlike background in magenta. Knowing the direction in which he’s headed, you can end up thinking some of these sheets look like steak without the sizzle.