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).
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).
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.
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.
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.