Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Action/Abstraction at the Jewish Museum - I

Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976
May 04, 2008 - September 21, 2008
The Jewish Museum is located at 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street

This is the best Modern Painting exhibition in New York right now. I have too many thoughts about this event to fit them all into one article. At the moment I have seen the exhibition only once and I want to take more time to view it again and consider its implications.

First Room, First Impressions.

I am a painter. Saturday was my birthday. With my best friend, the painter Biff Elrod, I went to the Jewish Museum, to see the exhibition Action/Abstraction, Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976

Entering through the heavy plate glass doors, straight ahead are two portraits, and I pause to reflect, they are photographs of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the two writers who played a passing role in this game.

I pause, as my attention shifts marginally to my right, towards two monitors which flicker dueling images, black and white memories captured, Willem and Jackson in the act, time stops, unwillingly my attention osscilates between the two painters, painters in the act, something I can feel in my soul.

If you are a painter you know what I mean, it is the most subtle form of identification, of an action taking place between exhaultation and pain. I stood there transfixed and I was not alone.

Willem de Kooning
Black Friday, 1948
Oil on Canvas
49 3/16 x 39 in. (125 x 99 cm)
Princeton University Art Museum

Diverting my attention to the side, my gaze settles on De Kooning's "Black Monday," then shifting a bit further to my left, Pollock's Totem Lesson 2. I pause. Recognizing this special moment in paintings long history, my breath becomes memory, as time, curiously glacial, concentrates my sensation towards these two paintings. Words cannot express my joy.

Jackson Pollock
Totem Lesson 2, 1945
Oil on Canvas
72 x 60 in. (182.8 x 152.4 cm)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

I spin around, now, dizzy with sensation, Woman 1949, Number 9, 1951, exhale and focus my awareness, for me it is familiar history made manifest, these objects before my eyes, take me down and sooth my sensations with some small essence of truth. A truth, a fragmentary essence of an artists life at some fleeting, and save this painting, now lost, moment in time. A truth adding to a ritual repeated for forty thousand years.

Willem de Kooning
Woman, 1949
Oil on Canvas
64 1/8 x 46 in. (162.9 x 116.8 cm)
Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina

Jackson Pollock
Number 9, 1951
Enamel on Canvas
57 1/8 x 38 1/2 in. (145.1 x 97.8 cm)
Collection of Samuel and Ronnie Heyman

A short jog to the right, de Kooning's Gotham News, 1955. This is De Kooning at the pinnacle. This is one of the greatest paintings in history, not just modern history, all history.

Willem de Kooning
Gotham News, 1955
Oil on Canvas
69 x 79 in. (175.3 x 200.7 cm)
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

A painting to make you weep.

Nothing else need be said.

If you are a painter you know, this is a miracle, something outside will or intention, it is the gods gift we accept with humility.

I stand transfixed.

I swear openly at the subtle gestures... "Why, did you say that?" intones a voice from my left. I glance back, but cannot answer, it is an awareness of some complexity I only know in my soul, a truth, discovered through pain I can only express with a touch of my own, and that is where the truth calms my soul.

If you are not a painter you cannot understand.

To my right, insistent the entire time, Pollock's "Convergence", 1952.

Jackson Pollock
Convergence, 1952
Oil on Canvas
93 1/2 x 155 in. (237.5 x 393.7 cm)
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

Inhale, exhale, flicker back to Gotham News, back to Convergence, my emotions drain, I cannot stand the two in succession, I weep openly, defenseless.

How is it that a painting, some inert object, can move me to tears?

This is what makes art "art"

"Convergence" is Pollock in the groove, wresting solid, an image from the chaos. It is the springtime of the field, Pollock is its master.

Between the two, I am lost in a sea of sensation. This is some moment so poignant, so important, I want to burn it into my memory for all time.

I am a painter, I know there is nothing there when you start.


It was just the first room. I wanted to write about this exhibition from the perspective of a painter, and to start I wanted to express the emotional experience because this counts more than the theories, or analysis, or auction records, it is the result of some miraculous combination of decisions solidified in the timelessness of these paintings.

The Jewish Museum is free on Saturdays.


Hans said...

Thanks so much for sharing your impressions ! I would like to be there...

I am now just watching some videos on youtube about Rauschenberg, so sad, theses days with so many catastrophes all over the world. Here maybe you know it: Charlie Rose - CLOSE / RAUSCHENBERG


George said...


Thanks for the link. You are right, I've been listening to sad music all day, it seemed to fit the tenor of this time. Robert Rauschenberg's passing just adds to my sadness.

This is a fabulous exhibition, with glaring weakness in the direction of certain artist's works. I think there is something really important here to be learned, and I'll like to open a dialogue once I've seen the exhibition again. Painting went off the tracks in the early sixties, the color field paintings looked terrible in comparison to the Pollock.

This exhibition resets the standard, and very few painters working today are even close. Painters have forgotten how to paint. (that's a hint where I'm going with this)

Hans said...

Painters have forgotten how to paint. (that's a hint where I'm going with this)

;-)) I can't wait for your proof !

Actually I myself was never an abstract painter, but had my first more serious encounters with the brilliant de Kooning's at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, which hang next to one of the wonderful Sountine's Carcasses (oh, that was a struggle between 1 Soutine and 16 (?) de Koonings...) but still I think the Soutine had slightly won ;-))

But after a recent time of works with digital media, collages etc., I had the feeling, that I needed to paint. The trigger were 2 maps of our Caucasus Region, I tried to make, with map elements, but different. (These: http://www.flickr.com/photos/caucasus/2126702643/in/set-1138551/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/caucasus/2367744577/in/set-1138551/ ) and than, because of the caused trubble here in the region and almost everywhere in our tiny world to reshape the political borders, I started to paint again, surfaces of paint which relates to certain imagined maps. I am just in the beginning of this series, and have a lot of other troubles to solve these days, but here is one of the first new half-abstract works.


I hope I find the time and energy to continue in the nearer future. What kind of works you are busy with ? Best regards, Hans

George said...

I don't think it matters if one is an abstract painter or not in order to appreciate the greatness of these paintings. What is evident to me in their presence is the accumulated evidence of decision making which unifies the artists vision, representational or abstract. It doesn't really seem to matter what the painting is about, or what style it is, what seems to matter is that the artist sees the process through to the end with unwavering intensity.

I like the map idea, borders and spaces, there's a lot to investigate there, keep at it.

As for me, I'm working on a big breakthrough in the studio, the paintings are an extension of the basic ideas I presented earlier, just pushed ten times as far into the unknown. That's all I'll say for the moment.