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Epic Abstraction at The Met

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday December 26, 2018

Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera, which opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art last week, is a collection-based survey of painting, sculpture, assemblage, and drawing from the 1940s into the 21st century. The show, which was recently trashed by two prominent New York critics, casts a spell on viewers through the stunning effects achieved in the first two galleries, which honor the heady years of the New York School, and amalgamated with later additions—all the way to the last gallery, where Louise Nevelson’s monumental Mrs. N’s Palace is installed.

Presented in newly renovated galleries that were specifically configured for this semi-permanent installation, the works often shimmer, as they were meant to by their creators. In the second gallery, works from the 1950s by Mark Rothko line the walls. The artist developed his signature format of horizontal bands within slightly vertical rectangles, using then-new acrylic paints in highly experimental applications. The paintings reflect Rothko’s concern with states of being, expressed in highly saturated, translucent colors that seem to hover on the surface of the canvas.

The gallery is given status as a temple through the placement of Isamu Noguchi’s towering Kouros, from 1945, at its center. Flesh and bone is suggested by the glowing pink marble, striated with veins of gray, whose human qualities set it apart from the biomorphism of earlier artists such as Arp and Brancusi. Kouros is one among a series in which Noguchi grappled with engineering problems inherent in holding puzzle-like pieces together through gravity alone.

And this is where my take on Epic Abstraction differs from that of Roberta Smith [New York Times], who wrote that the show falls short of epic—and is overcrowded to boot; and to a lesser degree, Deborah Solomon [NPR], who found the show limited. I am here to urge anyone within a 20-mile radius of The Met to visit this exhibition. Seeing through the eyes of sculptor Marco Palli, who made the photographs here, and also contributed to the conversation, you will discover the ways in which curator Randall Griffey has created connections between the 2D and the 3D that offer a view of art-making rarely on display in museums. The fact that the show covers so much ground is also something to applaud. Instead of getting hung up on numbers [white vs color; male vs female; dead vs young] as Smith and Solomon have done, I would prefer that readers who have seen those reviews, and looked at these photographs, ask: should I bother with this?; then decide for themselves.


In the first gallery, Jackson Pollock’s truly epic Autumn Rhythm (1950) is accompanied by a selection of his sketchbook drawings. These demonstrate his process of exploring organic abstractions to the limits of visual representation in seeking to understand his interior life. Pollock subsequently abandoned a reliance on nature observed—instead, adopting a trance-like state in executing his drip paintings. In the same gallery hangs an untitled painting from 1958 by Kazuo Shiraga of the Japanese Gutai group, which the artist made by dragging his feet through mounds of oil paint as a direct commentary on Pollock’s work. The contrast between opposite approaches to similar concerns generates a visual jolt. Shiraga was virtually invisible in the art market until a 2013 retrospective on the Gutai group, Splendid Playground, was presented in New York by the Guggenheim. The rest, as they say, is history.

It must be noted that Ms. Smith considers Barbara Hepworth’s Single Form/Eikon, (1938; cast 1963) second rate. In a period of highly productive experimentation, perhaps Hepworth was giving ideas beyond her more readily identifiable biomorphics a chance in this smooth—and undeniably phallic—bronze totem.

David Smith’s Tanktotem (1952-53) takes command of the fourth gallery, creating conversations between  works by Franz Klein, Robert Motherwell, and Inoue Yuichi. Smith, whose studio was in the Adirondacks, was among the first mid-century abstractionist to adopt industrial materials and methods. Here, his “personage,” worked at human scale, expresses the Surrealist notion of being simultaneously desired and unobtainable—a theme that could hardly be more relevant today.

The final gallery is dominated by Louise Nevelson’s monumental Mrs. N’s Palace (1964-1977), which Ms. Smith degrades as “overweening.” If overweening means that the artist dealt with epic themes on a magisterial scale, perhaps the critic is correct in her assessment. But Nevelson once told a friend that she discovered her true identity when she “stood up the wood,” and began creating nervous monolithic personae that evoke dualities of flesh and bone; public and private; frontality and depth. These ideas are evident in the work on view here, which, as installed by Griffey, strikes up a riot with its neighbors. One of these is the sublime Goldsborough by Anne Truitt, whose precarious asymmetry embodies the truth that, in the artist’s words, “without gravity you wouldn’t have anything.”



Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera is a collection-based show, with a number of loans to flesh out the schema. Organized by curator Randall Griffey, the installation will evolve as some works will be switched out as loans expire and others arrive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY Info. CV19.EX
All photos © Marco Palli, info. Palli in DART. MP031019

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