"Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere": Haunch of Venison

Article excerpt

This sweeping show of Abstract Expressionism, organized by the British art historian and critic David Anfam, was long on firsthand pleasures, and offered room to reflect on what abstract meant initially and what it means now--not simply "a world elsewhere," but worlds that seem a trillion miles apart.

There were sixty-two works on view by AbEx's main protagonists and a handful of artists that Anfam meant to wedge into the canon. In place of a strict historical narrative, his exhibition was propelled by his sheer visual confidence, beginning with starker works and opening out into loosely syncopated installations of canvases and works on paper with lush distributions of looping, dribbled, and jotted brush-work by de Kooning, Krasner, Tobey, Mitchell, Newman, Reinhardt, and Tworkov, among others, along with sculptures by David Smith. Anfam choreographed scale well, juxtaposing grand gestures and intimate ones across the galleries, correlating Pollock, say, with more marginal figures, such as Norman Lewis and Charles Seliger. Photographs by Aaron Siskind, Barbara Morgan, and others inscribed their imagery in the ledger of Abstract Expressionism, adding texture to the spirit of a movement whose existential aspirations are now bracketed by historical shifts of every kind.

"Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or 'life,' we are making [them] out of ourselves," Barnett Newman wrote in his 1948 essay, "The Sublime Is Now." Abstract Expressionism was, in fact, a representational abstraction, a paradoxical sign of an infinite, ethereal Otherness that surpasses earthly burden and yet, through acts of heroic sublimity, could be pictured. " Life," to Newman, was shorthand for the social sphere, and all of the artists and their signature works--whether the muscular, pulsing blackness of Motherwell's "Elegies to the Spanish Republic," or Pollock's airborne, pullulating skeins, or the nimbuslike haze of Rothko's colors in the diminuendo of their soulful minor key--signify the historically localized vision of an art that turned entirely inward, restituting the self in the aftermath of the technological apogee of the atom bomb and the devil's work of Hitler's efficient slaughter. In an act of resistance, representational abstraction was egoistically centripetal rather than publicly centrifugal, investing in a romance of the self in place of an art instrumentally focused on the problematics of society's weal. …

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