Ornamental Despair



Abstract Expressionist New York
Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Through April 25, 2011

Almost since the term was coined, Abstract Expressionism and The Museum of Modern Art have been synonymous. Thanks to many factors, (including economic and political, as well as cheap New York real estate), the generation of artists who became known by that sobriquet would find their places in Art History held by Alfred Barr, the Salaambo of all things Modern. Unfortunately, over time, the definition "modern" became elastic, and new art was acquired, pushing aside some artists, making room for new ones. Fortunately for us Abstract Expressionist New York takes us back in time, exhuming works from the permanent collection which are ordinarily not always on view.

Trying to organize such an unruly group of individualists into any cohesive system is a lot like corralling kittens. This, of course, is what makes this show such a treat. Two large rooms are devoted to Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, respectively. Pollock has his own permanent vestibule in the Temple of MoMA, but Rothko usually hangs with Barnett Newman and Franz Kline in a side room. This pairing reminds us that there were two factions, rather clearly defined amongst the AbExers: the Cedar Tavern guys -- Kline, de Kooning, Pollock, et al.; and the "Uptown" guys -- Newman, Rothko and Gottlieb.

The downtown work largely dominated by muscled brushwork, heavy drinking, and a penchant for painting in black and white. Uptown, the work was more atmospheric, subtly hued, and spiritual. Head to head, Rothko's paintings seem more aggressive when compared with Pollock (Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea, 1944); conversely, (One: Number 31, 1950) which usually seems like our Guernica, takes on an almost pastoral air. In contrast to the cohesiveness of pairing Rothko and Pollock, Willem de Kooning hangs in four separate galleries. Fitting, as de Kooning never quite knew where he fit in, being neither wholly abstract, nor ever happy with a resolved figure. His small Valentine (1947) is a minor masterpiece. Philip Guston, is also seemingly always in search of a style, though careful curating has placed him as the Alpha and Omega of the movement. His early Gladiators (1940) plays against the later gem Painting (1954), whose creamy pastel plus and minus signs blend and blur, into infinity.

Although slightly older than his peers, Milton Resnick seemed to be always trying to catch up. It is one of the highlights of the show to see him in the ring again, punching away at a canvas, and, like Frenhoefer, beating it into nearly incoherent submission. One cannot imagine another artist more fitting of the crown of "Action Painter;" than Resnick; though the works are significant and monumental, the man epitomized mid-century Existentialism, saying that his work succeeded "when he painted himself out of the picture."

Two paintings by Robert Motherwell (Western Air, 1946-7; Personage with Yellow Ochre, and White, 1947) astound, though quietly. With deft, linear, brushwork, they partake of both Gorky and Picasso, yet show the underlying architecture that would eventually become the basis of his "Spanish Elegies";. The bête noir of gender inclusion is artfully sidestepped, as Louise Bourgeois is relegated to a separate exhibition of sculpture. We are given more of Helen Frankenthaler than we probably want, though in the context of this arrangement she comes out looking stronger than usual; her stained fields of color have more of a resounding echo, following the large room of Rothko. (Jacob's Ladder, 1957) and its ilk did spawn a generation of Noland and Olitski, after all.

Whatever conclusions we draw from this exhibit, or responses we take away, in the end may matter less than we think. The general sense we have is one of bearing witness to a closed ceremony, a temple whose doors have been shut long ago. That isn't such a bad thing. These works represent a very specific time and place, and the farther we drift away from it, the less we really understand that context, and, unfortunately, the more we project our own issues and ideals onto it. One might be tempted to compare it to looking at the caves at Lascaux. We can see buffalos and figures with arrows and all manner of pretty signs and colored handprints. We don't necessarily need to know who made these marks, nor why, to appreciate the aesthetic qualities they might possess.

Even now, only 50 or 60 years out from the AbEx moment, a generation or two has come whose grasp of the Subjects of the Artists (as Newman named one of their clubs) is tenuous, at best. All that angst and despair may have wrought may be seen by future generations as merely beautiful. Maybe that was their point after all; most of them didn't paint for us anyway, but for themselves. So let's pretend, for a moment at least, that we have the show that Alfred Barr would have wanted, and the lions and barbarians aren't yet at the gates, and it might be this way forever. - Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.