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How is MoMA’s “Abstract Expressionist New York” Faring Online?

by Kyle Chayka on October 14, 2010

AbEx installation shot POSED by Fred Conrad for the NYT! Juicy! (image via NYTimes.com)

The Museum of Modern Art’s Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture, an ambitious exhibition that (kinda) rethinks the standard narrative of Abstract Expressionism (aka AbEx), has been open since October 3. The show complicates things by reintroducing us to artists not entirely within the AbEx canon, putting old favorites in a new context and shining a spotlight on the people and places of AbEx.

The question is: did MoMA and its curators accomplish their goal? We turn to the internet at large for a look at how people have reacted to the exhibition!

  • Roberta Smith, august art critic of the New York Times, calls Abstract Expressionist New York magnificent, lavish and intelligent” yet also “myopic.” The critic calls the lineup of the usual suspects “monotonous” but points out, “artists often look better in the company of their peers than in the regal isolation of museum retrospectives.” And so they do! In the end, Smith says that though AbEx is a good showing, it could’ve used more diversity from lesser known voices.
  • Also of note is the New York Times photo of the AbEx show. The three well-dressed women intelligently looking at the paintings in the paper’s photo are actually [GASP] posed! Creating his own Jeff Wall, Fred R. Conrad faked the installation shot, and the Grey Lady betrays its anger in an Editorial Note. Personally, I think it looks good.
  • Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes is right to point out the fallacy of the show’s title: this isn’t all NYC work, and not all the artists are from NYC. The critic also investigates why Clyfford Still wasn’t integrated into the thrust of the show.
  • Carolina Miranda (AKA C-Monster) gives us the gift of a two-part WNYC audio documentary on Abstract Expressionism’s history in New York City with Perfect City: New York and the Art that Changed the World. Be sure to listen for oral histories of the Cedar Tavern and sassy Peggy Guggenheim quotes!
  • The New Republic’Jed Perl castigates the show as few others do: “the installation is so uninspired and predictable a presentation of blue-chip stuff that a visitor may be left wondering what Ann Temkin, the curator in charge, could possibly have had in mind.” The fourth floor exhibition makes the AbEx works look “intellectually moribund.”
  • In a slide show essay Slate’s Fred Kaplan is struck by AbEx, but maybe not how you’d expect: “You’re staggered by how much great stuff has been languishing in the basement.” Kaplan also gives much deserved attention to the galleries of photographs in the show that both exemplify and document AbEx.
  • Two Coats of Paint blogger Sharon L. Butler wrote up the exhibition in the Huffington Post. She echoes the lack of diversity critique: “the familiar easily out-muscled the newly anointed both in terms of wall space and inclusion in the press materials.” Check the post for some nice object photos!
  • Elsewhere on HuffPo, Mark Wiener and Linda DiGusta give us a view of the opening, quoting Jerry Saltz with the zinger: “These paintings live in Queens,” i.e., in storage. Some sweet opening event pics follow.
  • Here at Hyperallergic, I wrote a meditation on two particular works by Robert Motherwell, and talked about why seeing an old artist in a new light is a welcome surprise at any museum.

Overall

Abstract Expressionist New York seems to be well-regarded as an intentional attempt to get creative with a history that’s too monolithic, but generally accepted as a failure to follow through. The lower floor galleries that jumble together canonized artists and lesser lights together without barrier of medium or message are the clear winners! The whole shebang also serves to reinforce the idea that New York is obsessed with itself, as is the art world. Together, it’s the perfect storm of the vanities.

Abstract Expressionist New York at MoMA (11 West 53 Street, Manhattan) continues until April 25, 2011.

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