The Jewish Museum presents Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976 from May 4 through September 21, 2008. In the first major U.S. exhibition in 20 years to rethink Abstract Expressionism and the movements that followed, fifty key works by 31 artists - among them Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko - will be viewed from the perspectives of influential, rival art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the artists, and popular culture. Following its New York City showing, the exhibition will travel to the Saint Louis Art Museum from October 19, 2008 to January 11, 2009, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY from February 13 to May 31, 2009.
Beginning in the 1940s, artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning created paintings and sculptures that catapulted American art onto the international stage, making New York City the successor to prewar Paris as the mecca for the avant-garde. Two rival art critics played a crucial role in the reception of the new American painting and sculpture: the highly influential New York intellectuals Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. In the pages of magazines as diverse as Partisan Review, The Nation, ARTnews, and Vogue, these critics wrote incisively about seismic changes in the art world, often disagreeing with each other vehemently.
By interpreting the significance of the most daring art of their times, their advocacy propelled the artists and their art to the forefront of the public imagination. In 1949, when Life - then the nation's most popular magazine and a barometer of mainstream taste - featured a piece on Jackson Pollock, it was clear that Clement Greenberg's influence had begun to be felt beyond the world of art. By the late 1950s, Pollock and de Kooning were virtually household names and Abstract Expressionism was widely known throughout America and internationally.
In a period fueled by Cold War politics, the mushrooming of mass media, and surging consumerism, Rosenberg promoted action - his idea of the creative, physical act of making art - against Greenberg's belief in abstraction and the formal purity of the art object. The artists they championed included Pollock and de Kooning, Hans Hofmann and Arshile Gorky, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, Jules Olitski and Philip Guston, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. Action/Abstraction presents major paintings and sculptures from this decisive era, surveying the first generation of Abstract Expressionists as well as later artists who built on their achievements. Context rooms in the exhibition will feature personal correspondence, magazines and newspapers, film and television clips, and photographs that shed light on the cultural and social climate of the 1940s to the 1970s. The works in the exhibition, arranged in thematic sections, are grouped to evoke the rivalry of Greenberg and Rosenberg and the epic transformation of American art in the postwar period.
Visitors will see important Pollock paintings, including Convergence (1952), hanging near classic masterpieces by de Kooning, such as Gotham News (1955). Despite the fact that the roster of Abstract Expressionist artists included many outsiders - among them immigrant Greeks, Russians, Armenians, and Jews - and showed the influence of non-Western art, such as Native American and African works, Greenberg and Rosenberg often disregarded minority artists, particularly women and African Americans. Notable among the critics' "blind spots" were the painters Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan and Norman Lewis. Krasner is represented in the exhibition by two pictures, including Untitled (1948) - one of her transformative Little Image paintings. Grace Hartigan's energetic canvases fused figuration with abstraction. Norman Lewis created vibrant, abstract works that referenced jazz and African textiles. Among the many highlights in Action/Abstraction are Barnett Newman's Genesis - The Break (1946) and Onement IV (1949). Such works represent a bridge to the next phase of Abstract Expressionism: Color Field Painting. Helen Frankenthaler's breakthrough painting Mountains and Sea (1952), which was highly influential for a number of other painters, is the opening work in a gallery devoted to Post-Painterly Abstraction. The exhibition culminates in the work of artists who chose divergent paths. In his monumental Marriage of Reason and Squalor (1959), Frank Stella took Greenberg's thinking about art for art's sake, flatness and artistic purity to the next level. Allan Kaprow, in contrast, hewing to Rosenberg's concept of action, invented Happenings and Environments, which redirected the focus from the artist as actor to the audience as creators. Kaprow's 1962 Environment, Words, has been specially reinvented for Action/Abstraction by contemporary artist Martha Rosler.
The show brings together masterworks from major institutions and collections throughout the U.S. and abroad. Action/Abstraction was conceived and organized by Norman L. Kleeblatt, Susan & Elihu Rose Chief Curator of The Jewish Museum, with consulting curators Maurice Berger, Senior Fellow at The Vera List Center for Art & Politics, New School University and Senior Research Scholar of the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland; Douglas Dreishpoon, Senior Curator of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; and Charlotte Eyerman, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Maurice Berger curated the context rooms in the exhibition.