Gravity’s Edgepresents paintings, sculptures, and works on paper made between 1959 and 1978 that signal a postwar shift in approaches to abstraction. The installation, drawn from the Hirshhorn’s collection, traces a double trajectory: the exploration of the force of gravity as a determining factor in artistic production and the increasing attention paid to the edge as a compelling aspect of the structure and perception of an artwork.
Moving away from the perceived self-expression associated with Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, painters Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland instead gave prominence to and inspired renewed emphasis on materials and processes. Frankenthaler pioneered modes of staining acrylic paint directly into unprimed canvas, while Louis and Noland championed minimal washes and fields of striped colors. In 1964, art critic Clement Greenberg labeled this development “post-painterly abstraction,” which codified Color Field painting, a style primarily associated with certain figures in New York and the Washington Color School.
The exhibition recontextualizes the Modernist narrative of Color Field by placing works by Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Paul Jenkins, and Sam Francis alongside contemporaneous sculptures by Lynda Benglis and Anne Truitt. Jenkins’s transfiguration of prismatic light in his vibrant Phenomena series, which invoked Goethe’s color theories, and Francis’s Edge paintings of the 1960s articulated a new shift from the focus on the center of the canvas to the edge, forming new conceptions of color and surface as open voids. Perception of the edge changes spatially in the latex pours of Benglis’s Corner pieces of the late 1960s as much as in Noland’s “shaped paintings” and in Truitt’s Minimalist columns, which obscure the boundary between sculpture and ground, as well as between the individual sides of the work. Rather than reinforcing an art historical divide between gestural and geometric abstraction, the exhibition proposes a heightened sculptural and phenomenological sensibility that connects painting across diverse media and geographic regions.
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