Albright-Knox exhibit brings Abstract Expressionist giants to WCMA

Highlighting the work of ten abstract expressionist artists, “A Leap of Faith: Abstract Art from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery” is currently on display in the Williams College Museum of Art.

Abstract Expressionism is classified more by the spontaneous and rebellious philosophy behind the art than by the style and form of the work itself. Birthed in the 1940s in New York City, the movement responded to a change in values engendered by the cataclysmic events of World War II. Influenced greatly by the fantastical feel of surrealism, abstract expressionists chose not to use real figures or any representation of reality. Instead they created abstract art by using media and methods that had not yet been fully explored. Consequently, the meaning of a piece is highly individualized, as the viewer is encouraged to interpret the painting metaphorically.

The two uniting factors of Abstract Expressionism are color field painting and action painting. Color field painting is the use of unified color and shape. In action painting, the strokes of paint make the gestures of the artists very obvious, giving the paintings a feeling of adventure and experimentation.

Clifford Still, one of the artists featured prominently in the exhibit, was among the key figures of the abstract expressionist movement. For Still, art was a means of rebellion against forces of representation and historical thought. His paintings focus intensely on self-reflection, not formal composition. The Still work on display, “1957-D No. 1,” is a large piece notable for its intense contrast between patches of black and yellow. By utilizing broad, violent strokes, Still gives the impression that the painting could go on forever if it were let loose.

Bradley Walker Tomlin is perhaps the most elegant of the abstract expressionists. His paintings strike a balance between spontaneity and order; if he felt that a finished work was lacking the proper balance, he would immediately destroy it. “No. 12 – 1952” is the most traditionally refined of the works in the exhibit; it uses an architectural grid to provide order. It was this obsessive control that prompted art critics of the 1950s to exclude him from the abstract expressionist movement; today, though, Tomlin is recognized as a member of this genre.

Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic #34” is a personal response to the horrific atrocities of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). By setting phallic black splotches against an ochre and white background, Motherwell invokes an image of mourning at the same time that it suggests human fertility. This painting is the most acclaimed and carefully thought out in Motherwell’s series of over 100 “Elegy” works; it took over a year to create, while most of the others were finished rapidly.

Two sculptures on display explore metal as a means of artistic expression. David Smith’s “Tankotem IV” is one in a series of twelve pieces made out of steel boiler tanks. Smith was the first American to employ welding in sculpture, commenting on the effects of the machine on working class Americans. Unlike “Tankotem IV,” which is to be viewed from the front only, Herbert Ferber’s “Green Sculpture II” can be viewed from every angle possible. Ferber created a spiky, copper sculpture, and instilled in it a sense of weightlessness.

Willem DeKooning’s “Untitled V” exemplifies action painting with its intense brush strokes and lines of vivid color. This piece was made in East Hampton, Massachusetts; it combines a representation of the ocean with images of female figures, focusing on neither subject completely. DeKooning was a seminal figure in abstract expressionism and an important link between Picasso and Pollock. His influence is also easily detectable in the works of Joan Mitchell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly, all of whom have works displayed in this exhibit.

Rauschenberg, taking cues from DeKooning’s rebellious spirit, is best known for his found art collages and conceptual collaborations with Jasper Johns. “Painting with Red Letter S” is one of the former, combining ostensibly random materials with paint splotches of his own making. Playing with color and texture while incorporating found objects, Rauschenberg is considered the major figure in connecting Abstract Expressionism with the pop art movement.

Cy Twombly’s paintings make no effort to hide the fact that they are merely marks on flat canvas. In “Untitled,” he uses strokes that appear to be some form of writing but are actually just scribbles. Instead of interpreting the writing to comprehend the outside world, he wanted the viewer to look within himself for comprehension.

Joan Mitchell, an emotionally intense painter who drew inspiration primarily from nature, is one of two women whose works are represented in the exhibit. The New York scene which housed the majority of the abstract expressionists was unreceptive to women, so Mitchell moved to France, where she painted “Blue Territory” in 1969. Based loosely on the local French landscape, “Blue Territory” creates a sense of freedom and harmony by using thin paint, balance of color and symmetry.

Lee Bontecou, the other female artist whose work is featured in the exhibit, challenged views of femininity with her physically intense pieces. Her art often combines elements of painting and sculpture, which complement the intentionally vague imagery. “Untitled 1960” uses metal, conveyor belt fabric, laundry bags and knapsacks. It confronts the viewer with an ambiguous image of female sexuality, thereby blurring the line between matters public and private.

Along with Alberto Giacometti’s “Man Walking,” a thin, elemental sculpture that dares to replicate the human form, these ten pieces represent a rare opportunity for Williams students to view some of the most influential and exciting art of this century. The exhibit will remain open at the WCMA through February 14.

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