October 16, 2011

American Expressionism at Johnson

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If you happen to be strolling past the Johnson Museum on a rainy and blustery day, take shelter in the Museum’s new gallery for contemporary art. Works by five of the most important artists in American expressionism, Adolph Gottlieb, Clyfford Still, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning are displayed in Bursts of Light and Rifts of Darkness: American Expressionism from the Meinig Collection — and it is just the sort of exhibit one should visit on a cloudy day.

To give you some context for the exhibit, abstract expressionism was an American artistic movement that originated in post-World War II New York. Though abstract expressionists’ styles varied enormously, they attempted to convey their emotional states through abstract painting and sculpture. Paintings in the movement can, for the most part, be distinguished by their large scale and expressive brushwork.

Though one might be drawn to the exhibit by the prestige of the artists featured, the five works are not necessarily what one would expect to see from Rothko and de Kooning. The Rothko is not a floor-to-ceiling canvas that explores the power of color, like many of his other works, and the de Kooning is, as Lucas Colbert ’15 described, “like a doodle on a spare sheet of paper- a very nice, expensive doodle, but…” That’s not to say that the Bursts of Light and Rifts of Darkness is lacking in any way.

The five pieces do show five very different styles of an inventive movement that defined American art in the latter part of the 20th century. While the earlier works, such as the drawing by Willem de Kooning, the drawing by Mark Rothko and the Arshile Gorky painting nicely demonstrate the influences of other artistic movements such as cubism and surrealism, the sizeable canvases of Clyfford Still and Adolph Gottlieb perfectly exemplify the intensity and emotional turmoil by which abstract expressionism is often characterized.

The highlights of the exhibit are the two paintings by Still and Gottlieb. The Gottlieb painting is the first thing that one sees upon entering the gallery. The canvas takes up most of the wall, and unlike the de Kooning and the Rothko, Gottlieb’s Rising is a wonderful example of the sort of paintings for which the artist is known. Gottlieb’s large, usually colorful paintings are often called “imaginary landscapes”. Although Rising is not particularly colorful, it does indeed evoke the feel of a strange, fictional landscape with no distinct features.

The Still piece is an explosion of red and gold on canvas. It is almost certainly this painting that inspired the curator’s title for the exhibit as a whole, with its bursts of light and rifts of darkness. 1948 No. 1 is again a perfect example of the swathes of color that come together to form a visual representation of an emotional state for which Clyfford Still is known. It is a delight to see a Still in person, as there are relatively few of them in public collections.

Bursts of Light and Rifts of Darkness is especially welcome at Johnson as there are not very many examples of American abstract impressionism in the Museum’s permanent collection. The Johnson Museum has Cornell Board of Trustees Chairman Peter Meinig ’61 and his wife Nancy ’62 to thank for temporarily filling this gap. Each of the five works come from the Meinig collection and suit the Museum quite well as the Johnson Museum itself was designed on the heels of Abstract Expressionism’s most fruitful years.

Despite the fact that Burst of Light and Rifts of Darkness could be a little disappointing to frequenters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the exhibit is definitely worth checking out. In some ways it is refreshing to see a small pencil sketch by de Kooning. In reality, that is the majority of what artists produce. Not every work is going to be a spectacular breathtaking stroke of genius, but rather, just another Gorky — and it is exciting to see the delight the artists take in their small but handsome works. In addition, it’s a pleasure to see works from a single collection and get a sense of the collectors’ tastes.

Bursts of Light and Rifts of Darkness is just the kind of show that would be delightful to stumble upon by accident. If you had no idea what lay in store for you on level 2L of the Johnson Museum, each of the five pieces in Bursts of Light and Rifts of Darkness would be an unexpected pleasure.

Burst of Light and Rifts of Darkness: American Expressionism from the Meinig Collection is on display in the gallery for contemporary art at the Johnson Museum for the rest of the semester. So mosey on over to the Johnson, take cover from the weather in the Two Naked Guys Café, maybe get some soup and then stroll down the steps and wander through some fantastic examples of American abstract expressionism.

Original Author: Julia Moser