It is hard to imagine any of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) permanent galleries needing a facelift. But the museum does just that with the exhibition “Abstract Expressionist New York”, which opens Sunday.
The emergence of Abstract Expressionism in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s marked a critical moment in the history of art. In the wake of World War II, New York was the only city in the world equipped to support a dynamic art scene. A diverse group of artists took full advantage of this milieu to reinvent art as something that can convey intense meaning and emotion without depicting anything figurative. MoMA’s exhibition takes a fresh look at this pivotal movement by tapping deeply into its extensive collections of works from the era.
The exhibition is divided into three parts. “The Big Picture” fills the museum’s fourth floor and traces the movement’s chronology from early representational works by Jackson Pollock to 1960s minimalist works by Ad Reinhardt. “Ideas Not Theories: Artists and the Club, 1942-1962” takes a close look at the various ideas mid-20th century artists discussed in a Greenwich Village space called the Club. “Rock Paper Scissors” highlights Abstract Expressionist works in media outside of painting, such as sculpture, printmaking, and drawing.
MoMA’s collection of Abstract Expressionist masterpieces has immortalized the movement over the course of the last half-century. However, the static nature of permanent collections put the museum at the risk of ossifying such a dynamic movement. “Abstract Expressionist New York” completely reinvents the museum’s permanent fourth floor galleries. Moreover, the show includes numerous lesser-known artists who influenced the movement’s celebrities, such as Hans Hoffman and Richard Pousette-Dart.
The exhibition also traces the entire careers of pivotal artists—the first gallery contains works by Pollock and Mark Rothko that demonstrate experimentation with different brushstrokes and representational themes prior to their iconic use of drip painting and color fields. The exhibition showcases the enormous diversity of the movement while demonstrating influences and common threads in the arrangements of the works. These put some of the museum’s most treasured works, such as Pollock’s “One: Number 30, 1950” and Willem de Kooning’s “Woman, 1” in the context of a far-reaching and varied New York art scene.
Painting is often viewed as the primary medium of Abstract Expressionism. The exhibition does an impeccable job relating painting to other mediums. In one gallery, a series of black-and-white line paintings by Franz Kline interact elegantly with David Smith sculptures bearing resembling forms. The exhibition also includes work by photographers such as Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White, who explored abstraction concurrently with the painters. “Ideas not Theories” playfully includes an abstract rug by John Ferren. The inclusion of these differing media demonstrates how abstraction profoundly affected artists’ ways of seeing.
The breadth and depth of the exhibition allows viewers to explore the movement in a number of different ways. Monographic galleries devoted to Barnett Newman, Pollack, and Rothko allow viewers to immerse themselves in the stylistic nuances of those particular artists. Other viewers might be attracted to themes, such as the pre-modern and the subconscious, that exist throughout the show.
“Abstract Expressionist New York” could only happen at MoMA, as only MoMA has the collection and the history to make it happen. In a way, MoMA celebrates itself in this exhibition. The museum’s bold tracing of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the mid-20th century is certainly something to be celebrated, and in this exhibition, the museum gracefully opens up the familiar to new interpretations. By doing so, it reinvents a part of itself.