It’s been over a hundred years since abstraction was embraced in Western painting, and we’re still trying to make sense of it. Despite the rather clunky subtitle and the fact that the exhibit is drawn from a single collection, “Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell” offers an excellent compact overview of some of the key arguments.
One thing highlighted at the start of the exhibition, which includes works by 23 painters, is that alongside the rise of abstract art, our concept of traditional art history – how a movement or an artist invariably influences the next generation – has changed. A wall text explains how, rather than progressing in a linear fashion, painting “advances, wavers, invents, borrows, revisits, breaks, resumes and changes”.
Nevertheless, despite claims of non-linearity, there is something of an arc in the show. Curated by Kelly Baum at the Princeton University Art Museum, it is organized chronologically and begins with a generation of artists who cultivated a personal approach to painting; the following decades show a move away from making personal marks and more towards geometry and mechanization.
The idea of a signature style as “pictorial writing” is mentioned in the wall text. But it is also demonstrated by Mark Rothko, the starting point for the show’s title, represented here by a belated and diminutive work, “Untitled” (1968), which includes his signature hazy rectangles – here in red and pink – hovering against a dull beige background. Hans Hofmann, the German-born painter who was also an important teacher and cross-pollinator of European ideas, also treated his marks as pictorial writing. We see his “Midi” (1956), which includes electric primary hues, and “Composition #3” (1952), hanging at the entrance to the show, which is a dynamic and swirling mass of marks and gestures.
Nearby are representative, if not epic, works by Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Jack Tworkov, and second-generation artists working in the same vein, such as Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis. But there are also interesting paintings by lesser-known artists. Michael Goldberg’s ‘The Keep’ (1958), for example, is a canvas with dark, sharp marks, while Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle’s ‘Promised Land’ (1960) is an almost architecturally constructed canvas with paint plates applied to the palette. knife.
Geometry takes over in the next room as the artists attempt to move from spontaneous gesture to more calculated, even industrial, mechanical marking. The godfather of geometric abstraction was Josef Albers; a 1964 red study for his “Homage to the Square” series is featured here. Frank Stella’s ‘Double Scramble’ (1978) is made up of two canvases with interlocking rectangular stripes, while Richard Anuszkiewicz’s ‘Burnt Orange’ (1975) moves even more firmly from the existential to the optical: it is an approach striking and artful geometry, which he achieved using newly available acrylic paints.
Other abstract techniques developed over the past century include coloring and pouring. Helen Frankenthaler pioneered a staining technique in 1952 in which she poured thinned paint onto an unprimed canvas and allowed it to soak into the fabric; you can see the atmospheric effect of this process in paintings like “Belfry” (1979) and “February’s Turn” (1979). Paul Jenkins also poured his paint, tilting the canvas to coax the quick-drying acrylic pigment all over the surface, as seen in the spectral “Phenomena Spanish Cape” (1975). Meanwhile, Morris Louis’ ‘Pillars’ (1962), with its rich bands of color spanning the length of a vertical canvas, combines geometry with pouring and coloring, which it adopted from Frankenthaler.
More recent approaches to abstraction take the withdrawal of the artist’s hand to greater extremes. The banal and generic title of “Abstract Painting (613-3)” (1986) by Gerhard Richter gives an idea of this. Mr. Richter uses a plastic squeegee to make his abstract paintings, highlighting mechanization and chance through the use of blunt force – dragging pigment across a surface with a basic tool – rather than more subjective touch of the artist.
Two untitled paintings from the mid-1980s by Jack Goldstein bring abstraction into the postmodern era. Using found photographs and highlighting reproduction or copying, Mr. Goldstein blasted details down to near-abstraction, then hired painters to apply them to canvases on box-like stretchers. who stand more than six inches from the wall. He was among the first contemporary painters to hire others to do his works (although the practice is now common, even celebrated, by artists like Jeff Koons).
As you would expect from a college museum exhibit, “Rothko to Richter” does an excellent job of explaining the complex terms of abstraction, which were introduced and codified at lightning speed. But there are other elements of this exhibit that are rewarding, such as several photographs showing the painters at work. These offer an even richer picture of how the painting’s various postures and performances affect the final result: Hans Hofmann appears in his photograph as a possessed shaman; Mr. Richter, on the other hand, as a man installing a sign with a squeegee and rubber gloves.
There are few women in the exhibit and no artists from outside North America or Europe. This, of course, can be blamed on the collection rather than the curator. But you can see the seeds of many contemporary strains of abstraction here, and as painting advances and vacillates, pauses and resumes, future exhibitions depicting abstraction will surely expand to accommodate its reception and to its more general application.