Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Sweeney Guards the Horned Gates: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim

Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim. 1949-1960 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

June 8 to September 12, 2012
1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street)
New York City 212-423-3500

Grace Hartigan, Ireland, 1958. Oil on canvas, 200 x 271 cm. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice © Grace Hartigan Estate
Grace Hartigan, Ireland, 1958. Oil on canvas, 200 x 271 cm. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice © Grace Hartigan Estate

When Hilla Rebay, the founding director of the Guggenheim, was forced out of that museum, James Johnson Sweeney became the second director (1952-60). Rebay had focused on collecting Vasily Kandinsky. Sweeney’s wider taste encompassed the classic Abstract Expressionists – Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Jackson Polllock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still – and also a host of other figures. This large exhibition of about one hundred paintings and sculptures by nearly seventy artists presents the abstract art he admired. Sweeney collected many Americans, some famous now, and others who perhaps deserve attention: James Brooks, Herbert Ferber, Grace Hartigan, Ibram Lassaw, and Isamu Noguchi. And he purchased many Europeans, Carla Accardi, Pierre Alechinsky, and Karel Appel to name three, and some Japanese abstractionists, Yutaka Ohaski, Kenzo Okada and Kumi Sugaï being examples.

American-style abstraction became an international style in the 1950s, and was presented In New York. But although this exhibition juxtaposes familiar and now obscure figures, it fails to provide an interesting revisionist perspective on this fascinating period. Part of the problem is suspect connoisseurship. Asger Jorn intrigues me, for no less than T. J. Clark called him the greatest painter of this decade, a claim not supported by the two works on display. Sam Francis is, in my judgment, a great, somewhat marginalized figure in the 1950s, but that judgment is not honesty supported by the art on display. Recently we have seen in Manhattan a revelatory Lucio Fontana exhibition (reviewed here). Memories of that show make the two paintings hung here seem sadly slight. The one Clyfford Still on display is tremendous as is one of the Yves Kleins, but the works displayed by Hans Hartung, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Emilio Vedova are not going to be admired even by their champions. Three years ago (reviewed here ) an upscale New York gallery presented a serious exercise in connoisseurship of abstract expressionism, with a challenging catalogue essay in a setting, which inspired serious visual reflection. By contrast, this much larger exhibition is a very routine affair. Neither the selection of art nor the hanging is revealing. You don’t come away with a revisionist account of this important period.

In covering much discussed territory, a great museum needs to be imaginative.    Here the presence of minor works by such much-exhibited figures as Louise Bourgeois, Jean Dubuffet, Ellsworth Kelly and Ad Reinhardt doesn’t expand our thinking about the history of recent abstraction. Nor do the essays in the massive catalogue – which go over now very familiar material – provide revelations. When so much has been said about Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, perhaps there is something to be said for considering Sweeney’s critical judgments. But whatever his importance as a curator, he doesn’t come across as a challenging thinker. It would have been good to view a strong presentation of some once well-known artists who have fallen into relative obscurity. Do Yaacov Agam, Martin Barré or Theodore Roszak deserve serious attention? And what about the abstractionists from outside Manhattan? Was Clement Greenberg right to write off the Europeans, Serge Poliakoff and Pierre Soulages for example, in favor of his American Abstract Expressionists? Focused visual contrasts could inspire reflection about these questions. This exhibition doesn’t provide them. When financial pressures make ambitious loan exhibitions increasingly difficult, it might be interesting to present the Guggenheim’s reserves, in a way that provided novel insights into that institution’s place in the formation of our present taste in 1950s abstraction.  But this show doesn’t. It is a missed opportunity.

Isamu Noguchi, The Cry, 1959. Balsa wood on steel base, 221 x 85.1 x 47.6 cm, including base. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © 2012 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
click to enlarge 



Pierre Soulages, Painting, November 20, 1956 (Peinture, 20 novembre 1956), 1956 Oil on canvas, 195 x 130.2 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
click to enlarge