Abstract Expressionism at New York’s MoMA

Jackson Pollock, "She Wolf"

Visiting New York right now should include MoMA. The Museum of Modern Art sits in the middle of mid-town Manhattan in an assortment of buildings starting with the first International Style building in America by Stone and Goodwin, to the recent add-on by Taniguchi. With all the adding, the subtraction of this process has been the alteration of the way the original building opened onto the sculpture garden. It was once a real jewel of an urban space. I remember watching Natalie Wood way back in 1966 in MoMA’s garden, during the filming of “Penelope,” blowing bubble-gum.

Currently there is a triumphant show, “Abstract Expressionist New York” on the entire fourth floor that somehow fits the space of MoMA like no other. If you ever doubted the power of Jackson Pollock’s gifts you go away awed by his classical command of drawing and the creation of a totally new pictorial space. Somehow he keeps his demons at bay, but their power energizes his sometimes enormous pictures. All works in this show are in MoMA’s permanent collection. Pollock’s work exhibited here rivals anything else in MoMA.

There are several artists given solo-gallery status including Guston, Pollock, Rothko and Newman, with a few half-galleries thrown in for Kline and Gorky. David Smith’s sculpture is sprinkled throughout the galleries to great effect with his “Australia” standing triumphantly in juxtaposition with Pollock.

No museum can beat the assembled collection of Barnett Newman with “Vir Heroicus Sublimis.”
The Rothko room at MoMA is a treat, and one hopes it could be left up. Though seeing MoMA’s Rothkos makes one realize that DC’s own National Gallery has a much richer selection. Tie that together with the Phillips Collection’s Rothko Room and DC wins as Rothko City! Also the National Gallery’s “Stations of the Cross” by Barnett Newman comes close to matching MoMA.

De Kooning is the one painter that was a giant of the movement that is slighted in this show. He is not given his own room. And why in the world did they not show “Woman II,” which they own, along with “Woman I?” The one painterly abstraction “A Tree in Naples,” from 1960, is not one of the best of that period. Thinking on the title of the show I recall the exclamation of de Kooning at the time, “It is disastrous to name ourselves.”

Women are here in full force with Frankenthaler, Hartigan, Mitchell, Krasner and Sterne. Only Krasner and Hartigan are represented by first-rate work. Lee Krasner is never strong for me, after the 40s. Joan Mitchell really did her greatest work after the 60s. And the lone Frankenthaler should have been replaced by the far greater “Jacob’s Ladder.”

And why do they have the dreadful “Elegy” up by Motherwell when they own a much better one? It is probably due to the fact that today’s curators have discarded quality as an essential element of art.

Photography has its own galleries with great works by Aaron Siskind and Minor White among others. Collaboration with poets is featured in another group of galleries.

Abstract Expressionism, or the New York School, was the last art movement to really have all the arts on board at once. The poets were very much part of the milieu, as were the classical composers: one thinks immediately of Morton Feldman and Stefan Wolpe. All of these artists from various disciplines met at The Club where they discussed art in sometime heated debates.

Perhaps one reason why art has become more impoverished since Abstract Expressionism is this lack of interconnectedness. When I speak with artists today they speak about everything but the arts. They never mention poetry, and have never listened to classical modern music, nor do they attend dance performances.

Remembered fondly is poet, Frank O’Hara, who worked at the information desk at MoMA until someone remarked that he had written a book on Jackson Pollock. He was promptly promoted to curator. What museum would have the guts or wisdom (not a part of Postmodernism) to do that? He was a go-between to many of the artists in this show, and his poem “Why I am not a painter” should be posted on the wall.

Please note MoMA is closed on Tuesdays and “Abstract Expressionist New York” continues through April 25th, 2011.

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