Relegated to the art vaults since January, to make room for original and traveling exhibitions, the Academy’s world-class, comprehensive collection of 20th-century art surfaces again. Paintings, sculptures and works on paper from the museum’s holdings will make a year-long appearance in Decades of Abstraction, revealing the long and rich evolution of abstraction in the 20th century.
The rise of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s marked the first time an American visual art would attain international status and influence. Grounded in a language of abstraction that was based in the concrete world of material existence as well as the visual representation of sociopolitical realities and philosophical theories, Abstract Expressionism transformed the art world with its style and aesthetics.
By the end of World War II, the vocabulary of abstract form, combined with the immediacy of gesture and the urgent need for expressive emotional and psychological outlets, resulted in the Abstract Expressionist movement that dominated art in America for more than a decade. In this exhibition, Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on indeterminacy, the authenticity of unpremeditated gesture, and the awakening of the primal forces of human nature can be seen in works by David Smith, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Mark Tobey, among others.
From the austerity of Abstract Expressionism, artists gravitated toward “hybrid” forms—from lyrical abstraction, with its soft and sensuous style, to color field painting characterized by bright colors, pattern, and a deliberate formal choreography of the picture plane that veered towards ornament and emphasized the flatness of painting, as exemplified in the Academy’s works by Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. Concurrently, artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Lee Bontecou raised questions about painting and sculpture,abstraction and figuration, and the role of art in daily life during the Cold War era, shattering established identities of the medium and ideas of art making through their work. While on the West Coast, landscape artists such as Emerson Woelffer (who is included in the exhibition), were developing their own abstract style, taking cues from the Abstract Expressionists and Lyrical Abstractionists to create a blend of conventional and abstract approaches to landscape painting.
Several precursors provide a conceptual and historical framework to the abstract works on view. For example, through the Constructivist and Surrealist tendencies of Julio Gonzales and Alexander Calder, the logic of reality is fused with the unconscious world of dreams to form a type of meta-reality. Decades of Abstraction was co-curated by Academy Docent Stephen McClaren.