Abstract Expressionism is an innovation closely associated with art of the mid-20th century, a period when new gestural approaches to painting rendered even the artist’s brush obsolete. Yet many followers of this movement did not reject representation outright. Instead, they forged a productive dialogue between the two modes, incorporating references to recognizable imagery and emphasizing the artist’s own process as an alternate path to realistic depiction.

The Norton Simon Museum presents Alternate Realities, an exhibition focusing on four groundbreaking painters who were active in Los Angeles or the Bay Area in the 1950s and 1960s and who deployed figuration in an otherwise abstract vocabulary. John Altoon, a trained illustrator, developed idiosyncratic arrangements that allude to body parts, organic objects, even a pair of striped pants, while refusing to cohere into legible narratives. Richard Diebenkorn painted richly colored, nonrepresentational pictures for nearly a decade before turning to still lifes, interiors, and figure studies in the mid-195os. He and Frank Lobdell shared a commitment to life drawing, and both painters honed their treatment of light and shade through a weekly practice of sketching the nude. Emerson Woelffer created compositions with torn paper and painted pictographic marks using a method he termed “abstract surrealism,” in which shapes emerge unconsciously through the act of making.

Drawn entirely from the Norton Simon Museum’s expansive holdings of post­ war American art, Alternate Realities explores the ways in which artists challenged the limitations of pure, gestural abstraction by exploiting the resonance of figural forms.

Alternate Realities: Altoon, Diebenkorn, Lobdell, Woelffer is on view through August 22, 2022.

For more information, visit nortonsimon.org.

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