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Highlighting The City's Cultural and Intellectual Legacy

The Albright-Knox's Action/Abstraction exhibit highlights the city's cultural and intellectual legacy

Untitled by Lee Krasner (1948)

Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976 opened February 13 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The show is the first important museum exhibition of the 21st century to explore the Abstract Expressionist movement.

The much-anticipated exhibition, the brainchild of Jewish Museum chief curator Norman Kleeblatt, with Albright-Knox chief curator Douglas Drieshpoon, contextualizes the artwork through the eyes of rival leading art critics of the period, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg.

Rosenberg and Greenberg’s left-leaning, culturally invested mindsets personified the European/Jewish intellectual environment that defined mid-century New York City. In today’s world, with so much static foisted on us by a multitude of media outlets, it is hard to grasp the amount of sway any writers could hold over the art world, and how these two in particular were so instrumental in forming popular public opinion in their day.

The two critics’ rivalry, as they publicly championed Abstract Expressionism, created an active public discourse on the movement that even found its way into such mainstream publications as Life magazine.

The show also places the Abstract Expressionist movement in its post-war cultural and social context. The atrocities of World War Two, the specter of the nuclear bomb, and the dawning of the McCarthy era changed the political and public environment. It became neither as receptive to nor tolerant of the literal messages that pervaded the social-realist painting style prominent during the Depression.

Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor is first given the option of an education. The curators have created a multimedia environment, wherein displays of personal correspondence, magazines, television clips, and other relevant documentation are thoroughly presented.

Seeing some of the rare ephemera in actuality, rather than referenced in a book, is an uncommon thrill. It provides a great foundation for the exhibit, and offers something to the initiated and uninitiated alike.

Those possessed of a desire for this education should allow themselves extra time. These supporting materials are a visual bibliography. Sadly, in the context of our current, speed-of-light, Twitter-me, content-aggregated Internet culture, it’s hard to imagine who has the ability to devote such focus. This point was borne out on a recent visit. Three young women barely glanced at these displays before heading to the art-filled galleries. One applauds the curators’ attempts to hold the line.

In this “schoolhouse,” we are given an initial glimpse of modernist sculpture. Within the movement, sculpture was considered painting’s poor relation. As Buffalo-born artist Ad Reinhardt, a shaping figure within Abstract Expressionism, and a sharp wit, said, “Sculpture…that’s what you back into while looking at painting.”

Action/Abstraction gives the medium more appropriate due. Sculptures by Herbert Ferber and Ibram Lassaw are the first pieces seen. Works by sculptors David Hare, Seymour Lipton, and David Smith (who recently received an awe-inspiring centennial retrospective at the Guggenheim) are featured further into the show.

Dreishpoon titled his catalog essay Sculptors and Critics, Arenas and Complaints. In it he notes, “Rosenberg came to sculpture late. Greenberg arrived early and tracked what he saw with determined devotion.” But, Dreishpoon adds, “few sculptors…during the 1940s and 1950s found a secure niche in Greenberg’s pantheon.”

Greenberg dismissed most sculptors as too derivative, and dependent on the earlier works of the Surrealists. Only Smith found great favor in Greenberg’s world. He said Smith was “the greatest sculptor this country has produced.”

The entire second floor of the museum is devoted to Action/Abstraction. Each separate gallery room presents thematic insight into an individual vein of the movement, with a focus on Greenberg and Rosenberg’s views of the artists’ efforts.

Significant space is devoted to two European émigrés, Arshile Gorky and the renowned teacher Hans Hofmann. The history of post-war American art is incomplete without reference to Hofmann. Here, his paintings astonish with their color.

Hofmann and Gorky’s work provides the transitional link to America’s Abstract Expressionist movement. From Gorky’s work, one can see the completion of the European Surrealist bridge to America, and the first steps towards abstractionism.

Twilight Sounds by Norman Lewis (1947)

Both critics venerated Barnett Newman, and an important section of the exhibit is devoted to him. Newman was not a prolific artist—and he destroyed most of his pre-war work—but his influence on other artists was vast.

Newman said that he saw an “urgent need for new beginnings.” Like Greenberg and Rosenberg, he felt that American art should no longer take second-class status to European art. Newman was also a fulcrum on which Rosenberg and Greenberg hinged many debates on understanding Jewish cultural life in post-war America.

The gallery’s own important works by Clyfford Still are annexed into the show. A displayed letter from Still chastises Rosenberg for “his complete incompetence.” It serves to highlight how closely the artists interacted with these two critics.

Reinhardt, Still, and Mark Rothko’s works are presented side by side in a room themed “Sublime and Self-Reflexive.” Reinhardt ridiculed Greenberg publicly for his role as an advisor to collectors and dealers. Greenberg called Reinhardt’s paintings arbitrary and inferior.

Reinhardt’s series of monochromatic images pushed abstraction to its limits. His purist take on abstractionism became well known in caricatures of modern art.

Jackson Pollock’s “non-objective” work was also controversial, caricatured, and is still, regrettably, subject to a lack of understanding. Past the sculpture court, his Number 23, 1951 and Willem de Kooning’s Marilyn Monroe stand as sentinels to the rear galleries. Here, the two Albright-owned anchor pieces of the show are presented: Gotham News by de Kooning and Pollock’s Convergence.

Greenberg backed Pollock. Rosenberg advanced de Kooning. These two artists were brought to the center stage of Abstract Expressionism by the two critics’ support.

Pollock was Abstract Expressionism’s first icon. With his macho swagger, flinging paint, cowboy attire, and reputation as a drinker and bar-room brawler, Pollock was a readymade hero for an America beginning to carve out its own cultural identity. It is widely acknowledged that Greenberg’s championing of Pollock is responsible for the artist’s catapulting into mainstream fame.

However, the curators want to show us that what Greenberg and Rosenberg missed is as important as what they supported. The two critics were no different than most museums, artists, and other critics of the period, who all generally ignored the work of women and African-American artists. In the segment titled “Blind Spots,” works by Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner (working with two strikes against her, as a woman and as Jackson Pollock’s wife) are reappraised.

It is here that we are introduced to one of the show’s standouts: Twilight Sounds by Norman Lewis. Lewis was the first major African-American Abstract Expressionist. He was a member of the 306 Group, who counted among their members writers and artists such as Charles Alston, Ralph Ellison, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden (whose work is also on display in this show).

Lewis, along with several other African-American artists working in the New York City Abstract Expressionist scene, turned away from “ethnic,” figurative, and social-realist themes. Continually struggling with racism, Lewis fought to avoid being labeled an “African-American artist,” preferring to be known simply as an “artist.”

As exhibit curator Kleeblatt notes in a catalog essay for the exhibition, it is interesting that “just as African-American artists began eschewing African sources, leading Abstract Expressionist painters such as Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb began employing African and Native American references and imagery in their work.”

Still, Twilight Sounds is informed by the artist’s cultural touchstones, such as jazz music. The inclusion of Lewis in this major exhibition, and the renewed recognition he is finding in scholarly and collectors circles, is significant and welcome.

The show also explores the legacy of Abstract Expressionism; post-painterly abstraction; the influence of the New York scene on the world; and the musical soundtrack that informed these artists’ work.

It is in “The Jazz Room” that the show hits one of its few sour notes. The darkened gallery space with music piped in, a few chairs strewn about, and some album covers stuck to the wall is a curious addition. A better use of the space for the Buffalo show could have been a display of Western New York modernists, or those who were influenced by the movement. But this is a small quibble given the significance of this show, and the fact that the current Albright-Knox administration has been one of the most open in years to displaying, and purchasing, art by artists with a connection to our area.

The traveling exhibit was organized by the Jewish Museum in New York, in collaboration with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Saint Louis Museum. The show has already been seen in New York City and St. Louis. The Albright-Knox is its last stop. Special to the version we see is the exhibition-within-an-exhibition titled “The Brave Buffalo: Abstract Expressionism and the City.” The installation of letters, photos and other documentation is drawn from gallery archives by the Albright-Knox’s Head of research resources Susana Tejada and Gabriela Zoller, technical services librarian.

That title is taken from a May 1957 article in ARTnews by former Albright director Gordon N. Smith. Smith guided the Albright during Abstract Expressionism’s early days. In the article, he articulated the gallery’s forward-looking collecting strategy, and what he perceived as the institution’s duty, to acquire contemporary art rather than third-rate Old Masters.

Over one-quarter of Action/Abstraction contains seminal works from the permanent collection of the Albright-Knox, some of the most vital pieces added during Smith’s tenure.

Viewing “Brave Buffalo,” one is reminded of the Albright’s, and Buffalo’s, essential role in the history of this important American art movement. Through the shared vision of Smith and Seymour H. Knox, Jr., the museum’s major benefactor, the Albright was one of the first American museums to systematically acquire “AbEx” works.

Early advertisements from the galleries of Sidney Janis and Martha Jackson are on display. They were both Buffalo-born, New York City-based commercial gallery owners, whose presentation of Abstract Expressionist artists in their galleries was influential.

The role of these two dealers and their relationship to Buffalo is also an essential component to understanding how many of the works arrived here.

Janis and Jackson were responsible for selling five of the six works that form the nucleus of the museum’s outstanding Abstract Expressionist collection, donated by Knox in 1956: Gorky’s The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944); Pollock’s Convergence (1952); Franz Kline’s New York, N.Y. (1953); Rothko’s Orange and Yellow (1956); Gottlieb’s Frozen Sounds II (1952); and Sam Francis’s Blue-Black (1952).

Even the least mercenary among us would be hard-pressed not to note the original purchase prices of these donations, shown in the exhibit’s original receipts and correspondence relating to the gift. It makes for an obvious, but enjoyable part of the presentation. Convergence: $6,000. Orange and Yellow: $2,500. The Liver is the Cock’s Comb: $10,000. Keeping in mind that this was a lot of money in those days—a house on Nottingham cost around $25,000—it was still an incredibly discerning investment.

The accompanying exhibition catalog to Action/Abstraction (The Jewish Museum/Yale University Press) is a must-purchase. It is an essential treatise to the developing discussion of 20th century abstract art.

In creating an exhibition that relies on our own museum’s physical and intellectual capital, rather than simply booking another museum’s traveling exhibition, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery has provided a homegrown reminder that Buffalo’s cultural resources are one of our greatest assets. It is an ongoing testament to our area’s viability, and the need to re-imagine and develop Buffalo as a cultural tourism destination.

The show is on view until June 10.

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