TCNJ exhibit designed to show that great abstract art is not easy

“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult,” said Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), often referred to as the father of abstract painting. “It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.”

Curator Margaret O’Reilly uses Kandinsky’s quote as the jumping off point for Abstract Expressions: Selected Works from the New Jersey State Museum at The College of New Jersey Art Gallery January 27 through February 28, with an opening reception January 27, 5-7 p.m. On view are works by Mel Edwards, Lee Gatch, Yayoi Kusama, Louise Nevelson and many others.

“When people hear ‘abstraction,’ they think of Jackson Pollock,” said O’Reilly, “or art with no subject. They think ‘I can do that.’ But it’s not so simple. It was groundbreaking when Kandinsky (was painting biomorphic forms). It was going against what was expected, and Americans were slower to accept it. As an artist, if you don’t have talent and a basic understanding of the precepts of art—color, form—you can’t do it.

“I wanted to show the broad range of how abstract artists treat a subject,” said O’Reilly, “such as a work from James Andrew Brown’s ‘Imposter’ series, in which there’s definitely a face of some kind, but it’s abstracted.” Brown’s artwork, often made up of thrift-store objects—old quilts, doll heads, religious kitsch, paint, toys, thrift shop fabrics and TVs—confronts cultural and race issues.

It is not uncommon for the State Museum to lend work, both individually and as intact shows, to other institutions. An exhibit of the museum’s Toshiko Takaezu holdings traveled to Kean University and the Morris Museum, Horace Pippins were loaned to an exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum, and a William Glackens was loaned for a show at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. “Our (Georgia) O’Keeffes are on the road a lot,” said O’Reilly. “It’s our job to make the collection accessible, and we’ve very happy to have people learn about artistic movements.”

The TCNJ exhibit is an opportunity to teach about the range within abstract art, said O’Reilly from her office at the State Museum where, since April, she has served as acting director—it is the third time she has done so in her 28-year tenure at the museum.

Although the collection is digitized, O’Reilly likes to look at the actual work when curating so she went through bays and racks, pulling drawers, using criteria such as how recently work has been shown and whether or not the artist is someone viewers need to know more about.

“Richard Anuszkiewicz had not been shown in a long time,” O’Reilly said. “He’s a master of Op Art and geometric abstractions—the art world knows his name but students may not.” O’Reilly hopes to re-introduce to the public are Walter Darby Bannard, Sam Gilliam, John L. Moore and Hiroshi Murata.

Abstract Expressions: Selected Works from the New Jersey State Museum is on view January 27 through February 28 at The College of New Jersey’s Art Gallery, 2000 Pennington Rd. Ewing, NJ.

Opening reception January 27, 5 to 7 p.m.

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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