October 17, 2008

Visitors to the Saint Louis Art Museum will soon get a glimpse of masterworks from the age of Abstract Expressionism, hailed as the movement that altered the landscape of American art and shifted the center of the art world from Paris and Europe to New York City in the years immediately following World War II.

    ‘Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976’ will be on view Oct. 19 through Jan. 11, 2009, the first major exhibition in 20 years to rethink Abstract Expressionism and beyond through the works of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, as well as Helen Frankenthaler, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Jasper Johns, Lee Krasner, Norman Lewis, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, David Smith, Frank Stella and Clyfford Still.

    The movement came at a time when America was redefining its place in the word and coincides with the advent of television, pop culture and consumerism, explains Charlotte Eyerman, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum. “Abstract Expressionism was a term coined by a critic to describe a purely abstract form of art, the rejection of figurative subject matter,” she says. “The movement put forward a whole new language of painting and sculpture, putting an emphasis on the process of painting, with the artist directly expressing the deepest unconscious urges of the creative mind.”

    Eyerman notes that Jackson Pollock was the first ‘celebrity’ artist in 20th-century America. “He was one of the first American artists to be featured in LIFE and Time magazines,” she says. “With this exhibit, you’ll come to appreciate how incredibly radical his way of painting was. He overturned 500 years of painting convention to create a highly disciplined and sophisticated art form.”

    The exhibition is examined through the eyes of rival art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, whose competing theories often played an influence on the artist they championed, explains Eyerman. “Pollock gained fame mostly because he was backed by Greenberg, who was very committed to what he called ‘pure painting’ and believed that abstraction and Pollock were the highest examples of it,” she says. Rosenberg, on the other hand, promoted the process of ‘action’ found in de Kooning’s works. “Rosenberg favored de Kooning’s emphatic, physical and visceral style of painting.”

  The exhibit’s 50-plus paintings and sculptures span three decades and are shown in thematic rather than chronological order, notes Eyerman. “As you move through the galleries, you’ll see works by other Abstract Expressionists like Armenian-American Arshile Gorky and German-American Hans Hoffman. Then, we present three artists in a section called ‘Blind Spots,’ including Lee Krasner, who was married to Pollock, Grace Hardigan and Norman Lewis. None of them were acknowledged during their time because they were either women or African-American,” she says.

    Eyerman says another generation of artists, including Helen Frankenthaler, took on ideas that Pollock explored and created the Color Field movement in the 1950s. “The exhibit will have the definitive Frankenthaler masterpiece, Mountains and Sea, which shows the relationship between abstraction and landscape,” she says. ‘Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976’  was conceived and organized by The Jewish Museum in New York, in collaboration with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Saint Louis Art Museum.