Turning the world inside out

As much as any painting of its time, sculptor John Chamberlain’s “Jim 1962” — forged from the twisted planes and crumpled contours of fenders, bumpers and other wrecked-car parts that gleam crookedly in eerily cheerful, carnivalesque colors — reflects the abstract expressionist movement that rose to the forefront of the American art world around midcentury, irrevocably changing ideas about the proper subject matter and approach of art. Color, form, artistic process and an open-to-interpretation emphasis on the artist’s inner world became the hallmarks of the provocative new genre.

“Jim 1962” is one of 39 world-renowned works now on display at the Asheville Art Museum. Abstraction 1940-1970: Masterpieces From the Whitney Museum of American Art is the follow-up to last year’s In the City: Urban Visions 1900-1940 (also courtesy of the Whitney). Among the 30 abstract-expressionist pioneers represented in this exhibit are: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler and Adolph Gottlieb. Many of the featured artists (including de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Chamberlain, Frankenthaler, Alexander Calder, Kenneth Noland and Theodoros Stamos) owe much to Western North Carolina, since they studied and/or taught at the wildly innovative, experimental Black Mountain College. (The college was, in fact, instrumental in the very development of abstraction in America.

The show is divided into four sections, housed in separate galleries: early abstract surrealism (a precursor to abstract expressionism), classic abstract expressionism, color-field painting and works on paper (an important material to nearly every one of these artists, because of its inherent immediacy, in contrast to the often-belabored process of allowing oil paints to dry on a canvas).

In the modern era, nonrepresentational Western art had its beginnings in Europe, in the early days of the 20th century; the term “abstract expressionism” was first used in America in 1936 (by New Yorker columnist Robert Coates). But it took another decade or two for the movement to reach its apex. The genre gathered its full force in the wake of the atrocities of World War II and the dark stirrings of the nuclear age. A different kind of artistic lens — one that reflected the unfixed, uncertain, tumultuous tenor of the times — was needed. As the Whitney’s Touring Exhibitions Curator, Beth Venn, puts it, “This was a really frightening time in America, where there were all these new technological developments and people were just beginning to feel that things were getting away from them. … It was also a time when Sigmund Freud’s theories were becoming very popular in America — this idea that people weren’t individually maladjusted, but were maladjusted as humanity, going back generations and centuries [and encompassing] these inherent psychological problems and issues that tie us, as a people, back to ancient … and primitive desires.”

Abstract-expressionists found inspiration in a range of sources, including European modernism, psychology, primitive art, calligraphy, mythology and Eastern mysticism. Adolph Gottlieb’s stunning With the iconic, blazingly red, sun-like circle at its center and the bold, black brush strokes recalling Japanese calligraphy, “Excalibur” (pictured on the cover) strikingly reflects some of those influences.

As for Chamberlain, much of his inspiration came from a New York City junkyard.

“His window looked out on the scrapyard, and he saw what he thought were these beautiful kinds of metal forms,” Venn explains. “He then began assembling sculpture [out of] some of the pieces.”

Venn quotes Chamberlain, who said, “When Michaelangelo looked out his window he saw marble, and when I look out my window I see steel.” The idea, she explains, is, “Why should artists have to follow something that has more to do with the culture and environment of a whole different time? People might look at this and say, ‘I don’t know why car parts can be considered art.’ But Chamberlain would argue, ‘This is our life right now, in the middle of the 20th century. It’s about cars, and it’s also about disaster.’ These are wrecked cars, after all. Partly his work was about just the beauty of these forms and colors and shapes — and, again, this … more vital sense of sculpture. But also, it was in a way a critique of American society at the time, like Warhol’s disaster series or electric-chair series — this idea of a very violent and intense society.”

The works in the Asheville show run the gamut from early abstract surrealism to the more familiar “splatter” and color-field works that came to define the genre — also called “action painting,” because of its emphasis on creating an artistic record, in the work itself, of the action that produced it.

Some of the earlier works in the exhibit — such as Theodore Stamos’ oddly biomorphic “Legend of Dwelling” (1947) and an early Mark Rothko, “Baptismal Scene, 1945” — feature obscurely organic and/or amoebic forms. As Venn explains: “This was also a time of great scientific inquiries into the cosmos and the sea, and often things were being understood for the first time about microorganisms and [the fact] that we’re all made up of DNA, and the whole simpler things of life, like single-cell organisms.”

The show also lets viewers trace the creative evolution of several giants of the movement, including Jackson Pollock. His graphite-and-colored-crayon-on-paper “Untitled” (1933) features a dense tangle of brown, evocatively earthy, ligamentlike forms. The ink-with-gouache-on-paper “Untitled” (1944) is a study in anthropomorphic forms suggesting bones and stray body parts. And finally, in Pollock’s ink-on-paper “Untitled, c. 1950,” we begin to see the splashes and drips for which the stormy, deeply troubled painter became famous. Similarly, Rothko’s early “Baptismal Scene” gives way to his “Untitled 1953” — one of the gargantuan, color-field paintings through which he made his name.

Not surprisingly, Abstraction 1940-1970 most effectively showcases works by the best-known abstract-expressionist artists. Jasper Johns’ “Studio II” (1966) is a study of the artist’s Long Island studio. Johns removed the screens from his windows, painted the frames white, and then pressed them onto the canvas while dripping black paint through the screens to create the window images — emphasizing the process through which the work was created.

Franz Kline’s massive “Dahlia” (1959) — executed primarily in deep and bright reds and burgundies, plus the artist’s trademark black — is an aggressive piece which, like “Studio II,” stands as a classic example of the abstract-expressionist notion that technique is more important than subject matter. It’s clearly a painting about painting — and every gesture of the artist is palpably alive on the canvas. “Kline was a painter who worked with these big, wide house-painting brushes,” Venn points out. “He literally put his whole body into painting. That’s what [many of] these artists are trying to express, in a sense — the choreography of painting … the idea of this vital gesture capturing the process of painting.”

Two works on paper by Rauschenberg — “Untitled” (1958) and “Untitled (Drawing for Cover of Art In America, Vol. 50, No. 1, 1962)” — are part of a series that was deeply influenced by the artist’s time at Black Mountain College. Technically termed “transfer drawings,” these pieces incorporate images from popular culture (telephones, postage stamps, maps, highway signs, watches, light bulbs, bulldozers, sneakers) which the artist took from magazines; he then coated them with turpentine and executed “rubbings.” Paint- and pencil-work crowd in and around the images, creating a collagelike effect that looks ahead to Rauschenberg’s later collages combining found objects with painting.

Willem de Kooning’s “Woman in Landscape III” (1968) is the final in a series of three “women” the Black Mountain College alumnus created — one per decade — in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. The first two versions are somewhat realistic but, by the time he did part three, the Holland-born artist chose to immerse the scarcely distinguishable figure amid the layered-and-scraped swirls of paint — each stratum undermining and overtaking the next in a display of the simultaneous construction and cancellation, delineation and defacement, that is characteristic of de Kooning’s work.

But it’s a piece by an artist who’s somewhat lesser known (to the general public, at least) than these powerful male titans of abstraction that arguably steals the show. Helen Frankenthaler’s massive “Arden” (1961) is a breathtaking reinterpretation of the American landscape tradition that anchors it firmly within the context of abstraction, once and for all.

No brushwork was used in creating this piece. Instead, Frankenthaler (who’d been deeply influenced by Pollock) placed her canvas on the floor and poured different-colored paints directly onto the unprimed surface, allowing the hues to soak in. This process of pouring paint and allowing the flowing “stains” to create their own shapes and edges became a literal metaphor, in all of Frankenthaler’s best-known works, for processes found in nature. (“Mountains and Sea,” a 1952 work created using this same technique, was the signature painting that put Frankenthaler on the artistic map.)

In the weirdly lovely landscape that is “Arden,” a yellow “sun” blazes in the upper right-hand corner of the canvas, while large pools of flowing green and brown evoke notions of trees. A large, graceful, pinkish form appears to float and dance near the center of the canvas. The tone is of primordial longing. The “forest” of Arden is an elusive fantasy, marked by a bittersweet air of romantic tragedy: It’s a place that can never be entered, yet its essence is poignantly stored in a kind of soul-memory.

Fellow painter Morris Louis once declared that Frankenthaler’s art “became a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” She is also one of a handful of the artists represented in the show who are still living (the others being Johns, Chamberlain, Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers).

All of the works in Abstraction 1940-1970 are important within the context of both the history of art and the clamorous history of America itself, and all are deeply compelling — in wildly divergent ways. Given the space, one could elaborate about each piece ad infinitum. But words, by their very nature, fall short in terms of this exhibition. Perhaps Venn says it best: “This is the kind of art that’s so much better to see than to talk about or read about, because when you experience the work, you understand. That’s the whole point. With realist paintings you can, of course, describe the subject. But what often happens then is that, when people see the paintings, they don’t really look at the work, because they think they [already] know what it’s about.

“These works really reward expanded looking,” she concludes, giving just a hint of the treasure trove of visionary wonders that’s there for the taking.

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