Abstract art’s popularity may have peaked in the 20th century, but there is a renewed interest. Though October 5, Princeton University Art Museum is exhibiting Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell.
The museum’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Kelly Baum says artists are thinking about what it means to create abstract art in the 21st century. “Painting and abstraction never die, they evolve.”
The collector Preston H. Haskell III, who endowed Baum’s position, is founder and chairman of the Haskell Company, the largest privately held construction company in Florida. Haskell and his wife, Joan, began collecting in the 1980s, hoping to model creativity and be inspirational to the then fledgling company.
The exhibition, from both Haskell’s personal holdings and those held by the Haskell Company, includes works by Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Jean Dubuffet, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko and Frank Stella.
“Preston has been a passionate champion of the university and he’s making a personal sacrifice by letting the collection leave his house,” said Baum. “It wasn’t in storage but on the walls of his home and office, and there are now 27 holes on his walls.”
The exhibition at Princeton University highlights the evolution of abstract painting from 1950 to 1990 through technique, process and mark making.
“Mark making is the painterly handwriting through which we can deconstruct the work,” Baum continues. “How was the paint applied? With brushes, palette knives, airbrush, solvents, fingers? How would you describe the unique painterly handwriting, and what does it tell us about abstract painting and its priorities?”
To show the distinctive quality of an artist’s handwriting and why it is so important, each label has embedded in it a photo of the artist at work, showing how the painting is made.
During this postwar period, there was extraordinary creative ferment as artists experimented with technique and altered technique to keep abstract painting up to date and contemporary. “Process is important,” said Baum. “Artists create meaning through technique, but technique is also meaningful.”
Richter, for example, applies paint with squeegees, Paul Jenkins pours acrylic paint from a trash can and Helen Frankenthaler applied paint with rags, mops, sponges, windshield wipers and, ultimately, by staining unprimed canvas to create her hallmark flatness.
Gesture is a specific kind of mark making, Baum said. Hans Hofmann and Mark Rothko wanted their marks to be visual so you’d know how their paintings were made – the brush was an extension of the arm, the heart and the soul.
“Preston was there in the trenches in the 1980s,” continued Baum. “The collection became more gestural over time – that is his sweet spot. He feels a chemistry with the gestural artists. Frank Stella was not a gestural artist, but Preston admires the breadth and variety of his output, and in fact is still collecting Stella.”
By the 1960s, mark making was seen as too narcissistic so artists depersonalized and demoted gesture. For Frankenthaler, staining was a way to extricate herself from mark making, putting paint on canvas without using her hands, but her canvases still have abstract expressionist flair.
An important part of the history of abstraction, pointed out Baum, is that it sometimes diverges and intersects with representational art. “But the story of abstract art is much messier than art history will allow,” she said. Whereas Rothko was wedded to abstraction, DeKooning and Richter went back and forth. DeKooning was criticized for doing both, and he argued that critics shouldn’t prescribe what an artist should do.
While abstraction was invented in the first half of the 20th century, it was after World War II that the center of the modern art world shifted from Paris to New York – the rise of Naziism sent artists fleeing west, and the Avant-garde and Surrealists, including Duchamp, all wound up in New York, introducing young American painters associated with regionalism, murals and the WPA to the concept of the unconscious. “Emigres from Russia and Poland invented a new language around abstraction. It was developed and refined in the U.S. in response to the historical trauma of the war, the holocaust, Hiroshima. In their statements, (Jackson) Pollock, Rothko and (Barnett) Newman said you can’t make the same kind of art as before in a world that has seen the holocaust and the atom bomb – we need to reinvent art for this period. And that was the birth of Abstract Expressionism.”
Although the period was punctuated by the Korean and Vietnam wars, the artists “are expressing universal ideas about love, death and trauma, registering their psyches on canvas with every dab of paint,” says Baum.
Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through October 5.
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.