TAMPA — When you think of Abstract Expressionism, one city comes to mind. New York.
It’s the birthplace of the movement, and the artists associated with it are often called the New York School.
So it’s rather surprising, then, that one of the most significant collections of postwar abstraction resides in Jacksonville.
It belongs to Preston Haskell, founder and chairman of the Haskell Company, a construction and design and build firm. And now, selections from it are on display at the Tampa Museum of Art.
Many of the movement’s heavyweights are included in “Abstract Expressionism: A Social Revolution,” including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Hans Hoffman and Mark Rothko. There’s also work by some of the women in the male-dominated movement, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. And it includes a breadth of work that came after the pioneering movement, representative of how it changed art forever with works from Gerhard Richter, Frank Stella, Judy Pfaff and Paul Jenkins.
Abstract Expressionism began as a reaction to the horrors and atrocities of World War II. In the late 1940s, a group of artists rejected the traditions of their formal training and did not want to depict figurative subjects. Art could no longer reflect a frozen place in time. They felt strongly that creating art was essential for human existence. Unlike other new movements, artists were free to express themselves individually, without a set of characteristics to adhere to, although gesture and the immediacy of expression was the common thread.
This is not to say that they weren’t influenced by each other. They hung out together exchanging ideas and techniques, often while drinking. And the exhibition lays out those relationships and how they influenced artists to come.
While it’s often thought that these artists were solely expressing themselves, they also had the viewer in mind. The first generation had this notion of place, an existential concept called implacement. The ambition was to make the viewer feel present simply by just standing in front of the paintings. They used scale and exhibition tactics to encourage this. The gestures of the brush strokes should give the sense of moving from place to place, or the way the viewer observes things in motion, rather than static.
The exhibition illustrates the artistic sensibility and keen eye of Haskell. He rotates his vast collection among his home, museums and his corporate headquarters, because he knows it will inspire creativity there. Tampa Museum of Art curator and executive director Michael Tomor made the sections for this exhibit. It’s colorful, powerful and offers some of the most important works of the movement.
One such example is De Kooning’s Woman II. Though De Kooning was a key member of the movement’s first generation, in 1950 he started a series of Woman paintings that were shockingly figurative. But by 1961, he has abstracted the figure so much that if you didn’t know the title you might never see a woman. He’s also using landscape as a reference, drawing from a series he made from moving cars. That sense of motion hearkens back to the notion of implacement.
Two female artists in the exhibition, Frankenthaler and Mitchell, are considered to be second-generation artists of the movement. Both had work in the 1951 groundbreaking Ninth Street Show that defined the New York School. (A reproduction of the exhibition poster, drawn by Franz Kline, is on display.) They also drew from landscapes as inspiration for their works.
The French countryside, where Mitchell kept a studio, was her muse. Her monumental diptych, Aires Pour Marion (Space for Marion), covered from corner to corner with small gestures, references the arrival of one of her beloved dogs. Perhaps the “space” is the green void in the lower foreground in the right half.
Frankenthaler developed a style of painting that redefined the movement. She thinned oil paint and applied it to un-primed canvases, creating a stain-painting technique that other artists began to use. Her piece, February’s Turn (1979), layered with stains in reds and burnt oranges, is considered to have been inspired by landscape, and the title nods to the arrival of spring. Although her styles changed over the years, she was considered a color field painter.
You can’t talk about color field paintings without mentioning Rothko, who was a highly influential and distinctive artist in the movement. A fuzzy-edged orange square floats over a baby pink rectangle in his untitled 1968 painting. His plays on color inspire emotion, a hard feat when the subjects are geometric shapes.
The exhibition shows how abstraction evolves through time and its legacy. Richard Anuszkiewicz’s electric piece, Temple to Royal Green (1983), vibrates off the wall and hangs right next to a work of his mentor, Josef Albers. By creating repetitive, tight square patterns in bright red on the palest blue background, framing lime green rectangles, the piece looks like it’s pulsing to draw you inside. It’s a great piece of optical art, although it is hard to look at for an extended period of time.
Other works that carry out the legacy include Pfaff’s collage, Untitled (Koln) (1979), which uses colorful and holographic contact paper to create gestures in an energetic scene that feels like a party. In Golden Chalice (1989), Robert Rauschenberg combines photographic images transferred on aluminum of blue gathered curtains and a mustard chalice with a flurry of gestural paint strokes in purple and white. The unrelated images create an ambiguous narrative, if there is one at all, which is the abstraction. James Rosenquist makes a collage of flowers and lipstick-clad mouths over gestural red brush strokes in Shriek (1986).
Richter brings it all back to gesture with 1986’s Abstract Painting (613-3). He photographed sketches of brush strokes and projected the image onto canvas, then painted over it. Finding his own gestures makes the distinction of his work his own, rather than an homage to the artists who came before him. And the freedom to find his own style is the very essence of abstract expressionism.
Contact Maggie Duffy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @maggiedalexis.
Abstract Expressionism: A Social Revolution
Remains on display at the Tampa Museum of Art through Aug. 11. While you’re there, don’t miss the companion exhibition, “Echoing Forms: American Abstraction From the Permanent Collection.” It features more works from esteemed artists including Elaine de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Alma Thomas and Aaron Siskind, who used photography of found objects to create works that echo gestural brush strokes. It will remain on display through Aug. 18. $15, $7.50 seniors, military and Florida educators, $5 students, free for college students with ID, children 6 and younger and members. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday with pay-what-you-will admission. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on fourth Fridays. 120 W Gasparilla Plaza. (813) 274-8130. tampamuseum.org.