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What made abstract expressionism go soft?

Hornet’s Nest:  Abstract Expressionism on Paper, Des Moines Art Center

Gallery Talk by Amy N. Worthen, Curator of Prints and Drawings (Gallery Guide)

Exhibition closing September 23, 2012

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Lee Krasner American, 1908–1984 Black and White Collage, 1953 collage and oil on paper 30 x 22 ½ in. (76.2 x 57.2 cm.)

Review from guest contributor Heath Lee 

September 13, 2012

Des Moines Art Center’s renowned Curator of Prints and Drawings, Amy N. Worthen writes eloquently in her gallery guide about the inspiration for the title of her recent Print Gallery exhibit, Hornet’s Nest:  Abstract Expressionism on Paper:

“Hornets-buzzing and dangerous insects-chew wood, mix it with saliva, and excrete a paper-like substance that they use to make their nests.  The exhibition’s title…suggests the stinging combination that resulted when Modernist Abstraction and Expressionism collided in the mid-twentieth century to produce Abstract-Expressionism as well as the works on paper that these artists created.”

On September 6, at 6:30 p.m., Worthen spoke to a packed and enthusiastic house of gallery-goers about the works in Hornet’s Nest, the rise of Abstract-Expressionism in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and how this movement coincided almost exactly with the founding of the Art Center in 1948

The exhibit was created to celebrate the visit of Jackson Pollock’s famous Mural from 1943, on loan to the Art Center this past April 5-July 15 from the University of Iowa Museum of Art.   The works selected for the Print Gallery were all created between 1939 and 1970 and represent iconic Ab-Ex artists such as Mark Rothko, Sam Francis, Jean Dubuffet, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell. 

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Jackson Pollock American, 1912–1956 Untitled (p19), 1944–45 (printed in 1967) Drypoint and engraving on paper 15 ½ x 22 ¾ in. (39.4 x 57.8 cm.)

The Art Center recently acquired a Jackson Pollock drypoint engraving on paper Untitled that is featured in the show.  This very rare print is from a posthumous edition of fifty, printed in 1967.  The work, notes Worthen, is “very spontaneous, about gesture and moving towards the abstract.”

Pollock’s work contrasts splendidly with his wife Lee Krasner’s piece entitled Black and White Collage from 1953.  Krasner literally used scraps from her husband’s discarded and ripped up works to produce her own art.  The Pollock work and the Krasner work are the “centerpieces of the show” in Worthen’s estimation. 

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Henri Matisse French, 1869–1954 Le Lagon (The Lagoon), plate xViii from the portfolio “Jazz”, 1947 screenprint (pochoir) on paper 16 3/8 x 25 ½ in. (41.6 x 64.8 cm.)

Along with works by stars of the Ab-Ex movement, are works by artists from earlier periods, such as Matisse.  The French artist has three joyful “cut-outs” from his Jazz portfolio in the show.  Worthen explains:  “Matisse made his cut-outs here with scissors.  Their biomorphic shapes allude to natural forms, but they become more and more abstract.”  Incidentally, Lee Krasner was extremely influenced by Matisse in her own collage work, having seen a cut paper collage exhibit of Matisse works in 1949. 

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Harry Callahan American, 1912–1999 Camera Movement on Neon Lights at Night, Chicago, 1946 (printed 1980–1981) Dye transfer print 9 1/8 x 13 9/16 in. (23.2 x 34.4 cm.)

If you have never seen Abstract-Expressionism photography, don’t miss the two dye transfer prints by American artist Harry Callahan both entitled Camera Movement on Neon Lights at Night, Chicago, 1946.  Worthen describes his work as “liquid calligraphic light on film.” 

During the talk, Worthen explained that cool and more impersonal 1960’s Pop Art eventually came along and quenched some of the fire and heat of the Ab-Ex movement.  This is perhaps best illustrated by Paul Hachten’s print, Parasubin (1970) which seems to cage up the energy of Ab-Ex art with its orderly grids

Parasubin’s colors are opalescent and unnatural.  Worthen pointed to this piece as an example of the “last gasp” of Ab-Ex style and an example of the inevitable overlap between art movements.  This work perfectly illustrates Worthen’s point that by 1970, “Abstract Expressionism, now subdued and tamed, has lost its sting.”  

 

Heath comes from a museum education, historic preservation, and writing background.  She started her museum career at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the Program and Education Director.  Heath has since worked as a consultant for significant southern historical museums such as Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee’s birthplace, and Menokin Plantation, home to Francis Lightfoot Lee.  She has written for numerous magazines, newspapers and blogs. Heath is currently under contract for her first book, Winnie Davis:  Daughter of the Lost Cause, abiography of Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, daughter of Confederate President, Jefferson Davis.  Heath holds a B.A. in History from Davidson College, and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Virginia.  She lives in Des Moines, Iowa and loves being a docent at the Des Moines Art Center.  Her favorite pastime is exploring all the super cool art museums and galleries across the Midwest.