Mark Rothko, “No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow)” (1958), oil and acrylic with powdered pigments on canvas, 95 1/4 × 81 3/8 x 1 3/8 inches (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation Inc., 1985, © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

In the beginning, in America, there was Abstract Expressionism. New-York Style painting was the movement that put our contemporary art on the map. Before Jackson Pollock, abstraction was but one relatively modest genre. After that, it was the tradition, at least in New York, that ambitious artists had either to extend or rebel against. Clement Greenberg was wrong about lots of things, but he was right about that.

Epic Abstraction at the Metropolitan Museum of Art includes 61 objects. At the entrance, standing alone, is Dan Flavin’s “The Diagonal of May 25, 1963 (To Robert Rosenblum)(1963). In the first gallery we see Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950) along with two smaller paintings by him and a number of his drawings from the 1930s. Next we get a roomful of Mark Rothkos, including “No. 16” (1960), and some other works, mostly minor, followed by the Met’s Clyfford Stills and its great Willem de Kooning, “Easter Monday (1955-56).

Jackson Pollock, “Number 28, 1950” (1950), enamel on canvas, 68 1/8 x 105 inches (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection, Gift of Muriel Kallis Newman, in honor of her grandchildren, Ellen Steinberg Coven and Dr. Peter Steinberg, 2006, © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Then the revisionist history begins. Hedda Sterne’s “New York #2” (1953) is set alongside Cy Twombly’s “Dutch Interior (1962); some Bridget Rileys are presented next to Barnett Newman’s “Shimmer Bright (1968); these contrast with the painterly abstraction of Kazuo Shiraga’s “Untitled(1958) and Mark Bradford’s “Duck Walk” (2016). Just beyond stands Louise Nevelson’s mammoth sculptural installation “Mrs. N’s Palace” (1964-77).

The show extends our vantage point on Abstract Expressionism to include painting and sculpture from Europe, from Japan and, above all, work from women and African-Americans, artists who were marginalized when the canon was formed. So we see a sculpture by Anne Truitt, the paintings of Carmen Herrera and Alma Thomas, and a construction by Thornton Dial, “Shadows of the Field” (2008).

Carmen Herrera, “Equilibrio” (2012), acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 inches (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift of Estrellita and Daniel Brodsky, © Carmen Herrera)

This canon revision is now a very familiar idea, much written about and presented in numerous exhibitions. It’s a good idea, a plausible idea, indeed, an idea whose time has come. But here its execution is disappointing. Partly the problem is that some of these works are not really abstractions. The wall label for Sterne’s painting draws attention to its representation of clusters of bridges and elevated train tracks; and the label for Frank Bowling’s “Night Journey (1969–70) says that it is a map of the continents of Australia, South America, and Africa.

And as an exercise in connoisseurship, Epic Abstraction is flawed, for Herrera, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, and Joan Mitchell, who are major figures, are represented by distinctly minor works. These are problems of detail. The real difficulty is that Epic Abstraction, with its second-tier selections, doesn’t effectively present its thesis that the vitality of postwar abstract art is both universal and ongoing; it draws upon, but does not productively extend or support, productive revisionist thinking about the canon. You don’t see here a tradition of epic abstraction.

Anne Truitt, “Goldsborough” (1974), painted wood, 8 feet 5 1/2 inches × 39 inches × 8 inches (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 1975, © / Bridgeman Images / Matthew Marks Gallery)

Indeed, I cannot recall a major museum exhibition in which the gap between the idea behind the show and what you can see for yourself was so vast. I grant that showing Anne Truitt’s monochromatic plinth, “Goldsborough” (1974) in front of the wildly diverse shapes of Helen Frankenthaler’s “Western Dream (1957) revealed the contrasts between Greenbergian painterly and sculptural American works of that era. And connecting Alejandro Puente’s “Untitled (1967) — four equilateral triangles — compose a larger triangle, all in primary colors — with Kelly’s “Blue Panel” (1977) was suggestive. But far too often, instead of lifting up the previously marginal works, opening up the tradition, this exhibition, through its second-tier selections, lowers the grand paintings and sculptures.

Even after looking around for a while, I was puzzled. Why, I wondered, was a show that certainly includes some great artworks so disappointing? Now and then, when an exhibition is puzzling, it’s useful to step aside and reflect. Frustrated by my inability to make sense of this exhibition, whose broad theme is, after all, very familiar, I took a break and walked to the nearby galleries devoted to the permanent collection of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

Thornton Dial, “Shadows of the Field” (2008), string, twine, synthetic cotton batting, wood, burlap, sheet metal, cloth rags, nails, staples, and enamel on canvas on wood, 79 inches × 8 feet 9 inches × 5 inches (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014, © 2018 Estate of Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Cézanne, Manet, Pissarro and van Gogh certainly are very diverse painters, but their works get along together in remarkably harmonious fashion. Perhaps this is because now they are historically distant or maybe it is because they are all, in one way or another, painters of modern life — I don’t know. But abstract artworks don’t love one another in the same fashion. And so what Epic Abstraction reveals is the sheer diversity of the painting and sculpture inspired by, or struggling against, Abstract Expressionism. This exhibition is primarily devoted to the Met’s holdings, including new acquisitions, promised gifts, and some loans.

Since the museum has only belatedly embraced contemporary art, the masterpieces it owns are relatively few. This visual record of the postwar acquisition history of our most important museum may, I grant, be fascinating to some reviewers. For the larger public, however, Epic Abstraction would have been more successful had Randall Griffey, who is the curator, started from scratch, and found the best possible loans to illuminate his thesis. Since this ongoing exhibition is subject to revisions, perhaps significant changes, which may resolve some of these problems, are yet forthcoming.

Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrara, which opened on December 17, 2018, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) is an ongoing exhibition. 

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s Shadow:...

3 replies on “The Met’s Wrong Turn on Revisionism”

  1. Abstract art / abstraction?
    Well as Cole Porter reminded us, Anything Goes. Since Marcel Duchamp’s urinal and the Polish-Ukrainian’s Black Square and friends.
    What is “great” abstract art?
    As many views as leaves on a tree?
    And depends on the time of day? Day of the week?
    The Dripper at dawn and the Dreamer at dusk? Or vice versa? And both of whom self-immolated.
    Certainly the range of abstract art will be vast compared to wandering through the Impressionism and Post- Impressionism galleries.
    So I wouldn’t be too hard on the Met.
    You always learn something, if only appreciating more the “better” ones by seeing the “worse”.
    Then there’s the whole matter of how much they all matter anyway.
    Met writes: “numerous artists, including Barnett Newman, Pollock, and others associated with the so-called New York School, were convinced that abstract styles—often on a large scale—most meaningfully evoked contemporary states of being..”
    As Mandy Rice-Davies remarked, “They would say that wouldn’t they..”. Yes, like most of us they craved relevance and attention. Barnett Newman was a consummate promoter for his quirk!
    Great art above all has to say something. To its times, and/or all times. Not just be dubbed thus by fashion.
    It’s pretty easy fitting Otto Dix in the frame, for example, but abstract art is inherently elusive.

  2. “The real difficulty is that Epic Abstraction, with its second-tier selections, doesn’t effectively present its thesis that the vitality of postwar abstract art is both universal and ongoing…” Nailed! (thnx Hrag) New abstraction #structuredabstraction is indeed flourishing.

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