"Action/Abstraction: Pollock, De Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976"

Article excerpt

THE BATTLE OF THE "BERGS"--Clement Greenberg versus Harold Rosenberg--is a scenario that has begged for serious treatment since Tom Wolfe's crude, witty satire of its more absurd extremes, The Painted Word, in 1975. Together, the critics personified the dialectic behind Abstract Expressionism: matter/spirit, objectivity/ subjectivity, the optical/the textual, abstract/representational, and so forth. What better curatorial drama than one in which Greenberg might play an august Apollo to Rosenberg's ecstatic Dionysus? The Jewish Museum's "Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976" takes its subject seriously. It is a punchy-show with some knockout blows and a few missed swings, and it never fails to entertain. Norman Kleeblatt, who organized the show in collaboration with Douglas Dreishpoon of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, merits applause for the tenacity of his thinking. No things, as it were, but in ideas. Certainly, at every turn in the installation, the question looms: How to hang criticism upon the wall? A corollary is whether this project is a catalogue in search of an exhibition. Yet even if so, the visuals alone are, as Michel in would say, vaut le visite.

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The exhibition's opening passages pit one masterpiece against another, seasoned with fascinating smaller pieces. A 1951 Pollock on paper that belonged to Greenberg himself--laden like a doodled-on napkin with various inscriptions and calligraphy--complements the larger dynamism of Pollock's Totem Lesson 2, 1945, itself facing a grave rejoinder in his black pouring Number 9, 1951. De Kooning pitches in with Black Friday, 1948, the Weatherspoon Art Museum's coruscating Woman, 1949-50, and the Albright-Knox's Gotham News, 1955, looking magnificent, though disquietingly dry in texture.

At the Jewish Museum, before the spectator was tempted to linger, Pollock's Convergence, 1952, exploded on the far wall in a riotous, messy reprisal of the poised "classic" canvases of 1947-50. Here the wisdom of coorganizing the show with the Albright-Knox--arguably the strongest collection of Abstract Expressionism and its legacies outside New York City--became clear. Arshile Gorky's summa, The Liver Is the Cock's Comb, 1944, again from Buffalo, reiterates this strategy. It stood alongside three glowing Hans Hofmanns and Gorky's grisaille Diary of a Seducer, 1945. In Buffalo next year, the stellar Clyfford Stills there will augment the array.

Beyond these initial galleries, matters became more uneven, the dichotomy between "action" and "abstraction" less clear. At times it was hard to follow the inner logic of the installation without resorting to the wall texts, Acoustiguide, or time lines. At regular intervals, a context room beckoned to restore order and, well, didactic "context." Rightly, the curators highlight Greenberg and Rosenberg's blind spots for blacks, homosexuals, and women by including works by Norman Lewis (albeit not one of his best), Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, and so forth. …