Abstract painting

American Abstract Painting and the Last * Monet – The Brooklyn Rail

Paris, France)

Orangerie Museum
April 13 – August 20, 2018

At different times in history, contemporary artists have renewed appreciation for earlier painters or styles. Many examples include the rediscovery of El Greco through the eyes of the German Expressionists, a new enthusiasm for the work of Frans Hals by a number of Impressionist painters, and the renewed attention for the later periods of Francis Picabia in the heyday of neo-expressionism. . Obviously, these histories of reception were stimulated by the relationships between the painterly techniques, types of imagery and/or artistic strategies of the earlier masters, on the one hand, and those of the living artists who championed their work often understated. estimated, on the other hand.

The new relevance of the later works of the impressionist Claude Monet for abstract expressionist painters of the mid-twentieth century offers both an example and a particular corollary to this phenomenon. In fact, Monet’s later work was largely ignored during his lifetime and for the two decades immediately following his death in 1926. The exhibition at the Orangerie in Paris is devoted to the exploration of the unusual transatlantic nature of the reception of Monet’s later painting. The Orangerie is a logical site for such a project as it houses two extensive cycles by the iconic Impressionist water lilies, painted specifically for these spaces as a gift from the artist to the French nation. In the mid-1940s, artist André Masson dubbed these two vast oval installations the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism”. In 1955, critic Thomas Hess hailed Abstract Expressionist painters for rediscovering the late Monet as “the most avant-garde of the ‘old masters'”. decade-long campaign by a number of American abstractionists.

The exhibition and its excellent catalog trace how the first sustained appreciation of Monet’s output during the 20th century came about. To a large extent, this resulted from the advocacy of American Abstract Expressionists. The exhibition presents this history through its analogical presentation of Monet’s later work alongside that of the American artists who admired her. Likewise, American abstractionists recognized the powerful stakes in Monet’s later works, simultaneously realizing that important connections could be made between this period of Impressionist work and their own means of expression. In short, Monet’s late work, in particular his now exemplary water lilies, offered a new knot on the historical roadmap of Modernist art that underpinned American Abstract Expressionism. With 20/20 hindsight, Late Monet could be explained and exploited as prefiguring the origins of the large-scale, close-range, all-over gestural canvases of American painters. However, it goes without saying that these great decorations (Monet’s term) with their narrow range of dark colors and seemingly straightforward depiction of the natural world would have seemed dated from a privileged vantage point of their time. They have often been denigrated or dismissed as too romantic or too symbolist, in essence too far removed from the radical modernist inventions of Fauvism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, let alone pure abstraction and non-objective art. They have also been derided as the product of an artist with cataracts and their visual blurring.

The exhibition synthesizes previous research and exhibitions related to the end of Monet, beginning with Michael Leja’s important examination of the revival of the end of Monet in the catalog of Paul Hayes Tucker’s master exhibition of 1998: Monet in the 20th century, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This synthesis also included the 2009 report by Ann Temkin and Nora Lawrence Monet’s Water Lilies at the Museum of Modern Art; as well as Yve-Alain Bois and Sarah Lees 2014 – 2015 monnet | Kelly exhibition at the Clark Art Institute. The main course of the exhibition begins in the basement of the temporary exhibition rooms of the Orangerie. Joan Mitchell’s monumental polyptych from 1980, The farewell door, hangs outside the first gallery as the exhibition’s opening salute. Created by the American artist in his French studio not far from Monet’s favorite haunts in Giverny, this image convincingly conveys the geographical, historical and visual justification for the show’s premise – and it does so spectacularly. It’s hard to look at Mitchell’s painting next to the exhibition’s title wall without recalling the palette, scale, and craftsmanship of Monet’s later masterpieces.

The first true gallery space presents a dialogue between the work of Barnett Newman The beginning (1946) and Monet Blue water lilies [Blue Water Lilies] (1916-1919). The connection here is visually less strong than the Mitchell association, although their comparison via text clearly shows the extent of Newman’s important early defense of the founding Impressionist’s later works. Thus, Newman anchors the intellectual and historical relationship and supports the concept of the exhibition. While viewers may resist the engagement of two such dissimilar works, over time they begin to realize the connections between the contemplative and absorbing presence of each image. In the second gallery, two medium-scale horizontal Monet canvases, both titled The Japanese Bridge and dated 1918-1924, chair to an array of works by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. The Monets are installed at the back of this space, one on each side of the central passageway separating the galleries. Hanging on walls that are not immediately adjacent to American Abstract Expressionist works offers a useful strategy. Through their thoughtful placement, they seem to hover above other works from the same gallery as points of reference, if not direct inspirations. This avoids any comparison and forced direct confrontation between the Monets and the works of American artists. Some of the mid-20th century American works here offer fascinating visual connections to the Impressionist paterfamilias. This is especially true of Rothko’s two small-scale multiform paintings from 1948, both Untitled. The way Rothko’s delicately chromatic forms float across the surface of the canvases offers bravado associations with Monet’s later waterscapes, though Rothko may have channeled his favorite [Pierre] Bonnard rather than Monet. Using terminology and conceptual ideas from critics, like Clement Greenberg, and artists, like Newman, the wall labels and texts in this space offer specific examples of mid-century appreciations of the late Monet and the connections between his work and mid-twentieth-century American abstraction. .

Standing apart, images of Monet’s Japanese Bridge simultaneously frame the great Morris Louis Sail which is staged in the center of the next gallery. The installation is both subtle and clever as it begins to introduce viewers to Monet’s late relationship with post-painting abstractionists, particularly Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. The palette, narrow color range and integral paint application method of the two horizontal Monets connects them perfectly to the shimmering essence of Louis’s painting. Essentially, this tripartite constellation reminds viewers of critic Clement Greenberg’s analogy not only to the narrow chromatic range of many Abstract Expressionists in Monet’s late work, but also to the close harmonies of Schoenberg’s atonal music. Following Louis’ paintings, a well-known canvas of a weeping willow tree by Monet leads into a fourth gallery space. There, a short perpendicular wall separates it from the luxuriant vegetation of Helen Frankenthaler. Milkwood Arcade (1963). Another U-shaped area in this gallery locates the work of Philip Guston Painting (1954) and the Joan Mitchell classic 1956–57 To paint with Monet Crying Willow (1920-22). More convincing from a conceptual point of view than from a purely visual point of view is the installation of the small-scale and whimsical work of Monet The Japanese Bridge (1918 – 1924) located between Guston’s Untitled and Mark Tobey white trip (1956). The atmospheric nature of each of the three works is unmistakable, but the delicacy of the airier, more open mid-century canvases jockey against Monet’s heavier, deep blue/purple palette. In sum, the Monet/Abstract Expressionist dichotomy works best for this viewer when the Impressionist’s images and American Abstract works do not share the same wall. The affinities between their pictorial methods and their visual constructions are better kept at bay.

Inevitably, a large gallery of black cubes to the side projects Hans Namuth’s legendary film of Pollock dripping alongside a film of a painting of Monet in a white suit on an easel in his famous garden. Comparing and contrasting these two films, and by extension these two radically different methods of painting, is an inevitable but scholarly temptation that I was happy to experience together.

On the upper floor of the Orangerie, practically located between the large entrance space and the two huge permanent installations of Monet great decorations was a gallery dedicated to Ellsworth Kelly’s relationship with Monet. The separate space thus functions as a hanging exhibition to that of the lower floor. He understands Kelly Green board (1952), a series of 13 of his drawings Nenuphar (1968) as well as a wooden sculpture from 1994. The painterly blue/green monochrome renders Green board an outlier in Kelly’s more rigorously controlled reductive practice. Kelly created it immediately after visiting Giverny in 1952. The unlikely pairing of Monet and Kelly here is as odd as it is historically compelling. Although the offbeat product of a proto-minimalist, it is perhaps the only painting in the all exhibition directly influenced by the impressionist master.

Given the vigorous advocacy for the end of Monet by mid-century Americans, it is not surprising that two painters/critics – Elaine de Kooning and Louis Finkelstein – developed the term Abstract Impressionism as an alternative nickname. The radicalism of Impressionism and Mid-Century American Abstraction spawned numerous terms to both explain and/or denigrate each movement. The Impressionists were also nicknamed Independents and Intransigents. Of course, the Abstract Impressionists, aka Action Painters, were eventually codified as Abstract Expressionists.. To be better appreciated and understood, the exhibition requires engagement with its well-written texts. Still, it rewards viewers with an open narrative and plenty of beautiful paintings.


  1. The title is the English translation of the Orangerie. “Late” would be more accurate than “latest”.