American Abstraction, 1930-1945
Comprised of works by twenty-one artists including Burgoyne Diller, Charles Shaw, Louis Stone, Theodore Roszak, Irene Rice Pereira, Albert E. Gallatin, Raymond Johnson, Agnes Pelton, and John Ferren, American Abstraction, 1930-1945 centers on one of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s foundational areas of expertise, early American abstraction. Although the gallery has mounted one-person exhibitions (often with full color catalogues) for many of the artists, this exhibition is the first group show of its kind in nearly a decade. It is also the second time the gallery has brought the work of the largely New-York-based AAA into dialogue with their Southwest contemporaries, the TPG.
In 1936, a group of artists that included Josef Albers, Burgoyne Diller, Werner Drewes, Carl Holty, Ibram Lassaw, and Charles Shaw founded the American Abstract Artists as an “organization of all artists in this country who have produced work which is sufficiently in character with [a] liberal conception of the word ‘abstract.’” At a time when abstraction remained on the fringes of the art world, the group aimed to “foster public appreciation of [abstract] painting and sculpture,” and grant “each artist an opportunity for developing his own work by becoming familiar with the efforts of others.” To accomplish these goals, the AAA collected dues of four dollars a year and organized annual exhibitions as well as studio visits with artists and group discussions and debates on the meaning of abstraction in art.
In 1938, several abstract painters living and working in Santa Fe, New Mexico formed a group dedicated to promoting non-objective art in a nation that—even two years after the founding of the AAA—remained skeptical about the merits of abstraction. Known collectively as the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG), these artists—whose ranks included Emil Bisttram, Raymond Jonson, Florence Miller Pierce, and Stuart Walker—strove to find a greater meaning in art and life. The group chose “transcendental” for their name because they believed it implied a manner of expression that existed outside of nature, acknowledged intuition, and invoked that which eluded direct representation. Seeing a kindred spirit and guide in Agnes Pelton, the TPG named her their honorary president. Pelton did not attend their meetings, but she did correspond and exhibit with them regularly.
Artists in both groups strove to place abstraction at the center of modern art, and both grew out of the needs of individuals who had been working with abstract art long before either group was established. While both groups valued abstract painting as a “purer” form of art, there were also significant differences between them. The AAA was a large, national organization organized around a generous interpretation of “abstract art,” and it encouraged members to join smaller artist groups oriented around more specific sets of concerns. It became a long-lasting institution, and later members included artists as diverse as Jackson Pollock, Alfonso Ossorio, Claire Falkenstein, and Louise Bourgeois. By contrast, the TPG was more local, geographically and artistically, and shorter lived. Like von Wiegand, TPG members were interested in Theosophy and drew inspiration from Buddhism, and like many abstract artists, they were influenced by neoplasticism as well as Wassily Kandisnky’s theories on color and the spiritual. But the TPG artists also followed Jay Hambridge’s theory of dynamic symmetry, which claimed that artistic perfection could be achieved through mathematical principles based on the symmetry of human and plant forms. Whereas abstract artists often reveled in the material properties of a given medium, TPG artists sought “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light, and design.” At a time when a sense of urgency and crisis prevailed in art from the United States and Europe, the TPG unearthed a language that spoke of the spirit and soul, emphasizing hope and affirming vitality. Fittingly, their logo (designed by Emil and Mayrion Bisttram) took the form of a butterfly, suggesting metamorphosis, flight, and renewal.
The TPG as a formal organization was short-lived but its accomplishments were enduring. Like the AAA, the group organized lectures, published articles, and mounted exhibitions. TPG artists gained notoriety with their participation in several landmark exhibitions, including the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco (1939), the New York World’s Fair (1939), and a 1940 group exhibition at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) in New York City. The group dispersed in 1941, and the AAA continues to promote abstract art to this day.
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