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Opinion: The Cradle of Ab/Ex

Mon, 11/25/2019 - 12:33
“Untitled” by Jackson Pollock
Gary Mamay

The essay for Joan Marter’s exhibition at Guild Hall, “Abstract Expressionism Revisited: Selections From the Guild Hall Permanent Collection,” is notable for reminding us about the people behind the pictures and sculptures. For her, the artists’ relationship to this environment and other factors affecting the work that ended up here are essential to understanding its relevance.

This makes sense in the context of the museum’s permanent collection, which exists only because so many of these artists lived and worked here and left some of their legacy behind as they rocketed to international recognition and acclaim.

Guild Hall, which has recently fully archived and digitized its collection, is celebrating just some of what it has with this exhibition. The show’s unfussy title takes us back to a simpler time, before stratospheric auction results in the tens and hundreds of millions, to when these artists might have been famous and well to do on a more modest scale, if at all.

The exhibition, with its no-nonsense artist-based groupings, is a revelation, with strong examples and apparent holes that mark the collection at this moment in time. It is great inducement for local collectors who may want at least some of their holdings to remain in a place most pertinent to their creation. It’s also a reminder of how many have worked here and how central Guild Hall was to the artistic community of the time.

The photograph of Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning in the catalog captures them at the opening of what was then an annual invitational exhibition of regional artists. De Kooning’s “Town Square,” an enamel painting on paper, hangs on the wall behind them. The vibe is early ’50s casual. Krasner looks feminine in a tiered ruffled skirt, Motherwell exudes Northeastern old money, and de Kooning has a quiet European rakishness about him. They all look relaxed and at home in the museum, just as their work does now.

Krasner is represented by a painting and two lithographs from the 1960s and a silkscreen from 1975. “Shattered Color,” one of her “Little Images” that she painted in a bedroom studio in her house in Springs, is absent. Painted in 1947 and gifted to the museum in 1961, the approximately 2-by-2-foot canvas is a great example of her work while she was married to Jackson Pollock and under his influence. The works on view are powerful examples of her mature style, expansive where the small paintings were tightly packed with paint, and her own. Even her smaller-format prints, which are about the size of those “little images,” feel grander.

James Brooks’s “Floxum,” from 1955, typifies the artist’s regular use of color. Gary Mamay

The three works on paper by de Kooning do not include “Town Square” (how great would that be?). There are two oils from the 1970s and a pencil drawing from the 1950s. The latter, called “Two Women,” has two sketches that both echo Picasso and Gorky and illustrate the artist’s distillation of those earlier pioneers into his own breakthrough abstractions.

Motherwell’s print “Capriccio,” a 1961 collotype and photo-silkscreen, may allude to the definition of the word — “fancy or whimsy” — or the trip he took with Helen Frankenthaler to Europe that year.

In the galleries, the artworks are enlivened with photographs of some of the artists by Hans Namuth and Rudy Burck­hardt. They offer a glimpse of them in their local habitat: Pollock and Krasner next to an anchor in their house, and Willem and Elaine de Kooning in his studio in 1950 and 1953. The sense of place is palpable in these images, so much so that it grounds viewers to this very particular patch of earth.

The loans that round out the exhibition are a mixed bag. On the one hand, the painting from Audrey Flack’s Abstract Expressionist period from Hollis Taggart remedies a lack in Guild Hall’s collection. The museum holds several of her Photorealism works, but none from this period, which are very strong. Her “Abstract Force: Homage to Franz Kline,” finished in 1952, helps chart her own evolution and the legacy of one more artist who spent much time here but is missing in the collection.

Kline’s influence can also be seen in the work of John Little, whose barn at Duck Creek Kline was known to have painted. Little’s “Opal,” from 1961, looks very much like one of Kline’s lesser-known color paintings, which Ms. Flack also references.

Where the loans don’t really work is in the service of Pollock. The desire to include more images from a marquee player is understandable. Yet the museum’s ink drawing on handmade Howell paper is a strong example from a period of artistic development. It demonstrates how he treated ink as paint in his black linear and poured paintings that followed his drip period, soaking it into the paper the way the enamel paint seeped into canvas. It would have been wonderful to focus on it with the silkscreen from the same year, a gift from the artist himself, without the distraction of the other works not in the collection.

Exhibitions like these, which air out some works seldom seen, usually offer a few surprises. Such is the case with Buffie Johnson, a contemporary of the artists of the period. She showed at Betty Parsons Gallery (Parsons has two works in the show) and moved to East Hampton in 1950. Her small 1946 watercolor “Ciel de Feu” is placed above a 1954 Miriam Schapiro abstraction and holds its own, with its translucent delicacy a momentary relief from the bolder juggernauts that marked the period.

A student of Hans Hofmann’s who lived in Springs, Elizabeth Parker, along with Alfonso Ossorio and Little, opened the Signa Gallery in 1957. The gallery featured area artists in dialogue with those from the city or farther away. Her painting “Vanguard,” from 1961, reveals some of the “push-pull” associated with Hofmann’s teachings.

James Brooks and Charlotte Park are well represented in the collection, along with Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Ossorio, Esteban Vicente, David Slivka, Mercedes Matter, Herman Cherry, Adolph Gottlieb, Grace Hartigan, Ibram Lassaw, and Conrad Marca-Relli. Marca-Relli’s untitled fabric-and-oil-on-canvas composition from 1968 is very special work, pared down and raw. It suits its rural surroundings, but all of the works are fine examples worth viewing in this context.

The exhibition will remain on view through Dec. 30.

 


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