Controlled Chaos: 'Abstract Expressionism New York' at MoMA

By Aureus, Alejandro | Commonweal, February 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

Controlled Chaos: 'Abstract Expressionism New York' at MoMA


Aureus, Alejandro, Commonweal


From a distance, the surface of the first painting displayed in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit on Abstract Expressionism seems like an intricate and confusing web. On closer inspection, however, an extraordinary clarity is evident, and the beauty and complexity of the poured and dripped paint hits the viewer with full force. Lines of silver, white, and black crisscross each other as tiny fragments of red, yellow, and blue appear throughout, above and below the rhythmic lines; the handprints in purple and red--on the upper right, the lower left--seem to extend the raw canvas beyond the confines of its physical shape. The entire painting, Jackson Pollock's Number 1A, 1948, is a visual syncopation comparable to an ecstatic Gregorian chant or a solo by John Coltrane. It is one of the many extraordinary pictures in "Abstract Expressionist New York" (on view at MoMA through April 25), an exhibition that extends over three floors and consists of hundreds of paintings, works on paper, sculptures, and photographs. All the work is drawn from the museum's extraordinary permanent collection.

The term "abstract expressionism" was first used in a review in the New Yorker in 1946; since then it has come to describe a self-consciously American style of art that emerged in New York City during the late 1940s and dominated the international art world until the late '50s. The basic identifiable elements of abstract expressionism are monumental scale, freely scribbled brush marks or bleeding veils of color, and abstract imagery. What made the style so "American"? Partly its eclecticism. These artists were eager to absorb all kinds of earlier styles (cubism, surrealism, Mexican mural painting) and transform them into something new and bold, the visual equivalent of bebop jazz and the free-verse poetry of the beat generation. The variety of work produced transformed modern American art from a provincial to an international phenomenon, replacing Paris with New York as the capital of modernism until the 1980s. The reasons for this shift from the "old world" to the "new" were varied: the destruction and exhaustion of postwar Europe, the rise of the United States as an economic and political superpower, and the anemic state of French painting after 1945.

Unfortunately, only the photographs and a handful of paintings, drawings, and sculpture work well in what is finally a visually exhausting, almost haphazard show. The installation of the pieces is too crowded, and there are many awkward arrangements between painting and sculpture. The exhibit's curators offer no new or persuasive narrative commentary explaining how the show holds together as a whole. There are, however, exceptional individual works on display. Pollock's Full Fathom Five, One, and Number 1A, 1948 can be seen as a summation of modern painting from Turner to Seurat, from surrealism to the Mexican muralists. Pollock was a synthesizer on a notoriously grand scale, using painterly gesture and color, shallow space and calligraphic structure, in unprecedented ways. The controlled chaos of his paintings communicate a new "American" energy, in both its positive and negative aspects. …

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