The hottest new show in the galleries is--are you ready?--"American Abstract Painting, 1960-1980.” The heat doesn’t emanate so much from the work itself as from what it represents: a chance to see whether good old abstract painting really is more meaningful, more rigorous, some would say more moral than the Expressionist mood that has swept it into storage bins.

Does this sprawling exhibition, filling two buildings with canvases that stretch out to dimensions of 10 by 18 feet, signal a revival of abstract painting or is it simply a historical survey? The jury is still out but the traffic is brisk.

The only sensible--and apolitical--conclusion to be derived from “American Abstract Painting” is that the genre has established a rich, varied, still vital tradition, from the monkish rectitude of Brice Marden’s all-black diptych to the roiling emotion of Lee Krasner’s “Green Rhythm.”

No one-note show, this museum-level assembly takes note of everything from Josef Albers’ pristine “Homage to the Square” to Alfred Jensen’s split-color bull’s-eye and John Torreano’s spray of black spots and glass “jewels” on a gooey field of vivid red paint. Quality varies, too. Helen Frankenthaler’s tall, skinny, red and green stain painting looks cramped and cropped, while Gary Stephan’s “Nature and Obedience” is a triumph of dark foreboding propelled through opposing force.


Part of the show is about refining one’s sensitivities to the point that the weave of fabric or the barely perceptible shift from one shade to another is a big event. You have to spend time with Ad Reinhardt’s black canvas and Agnes Martin’s whitish one to see their work’s interior life. Other paintings reveal that abstraction is not as remote or as simply abstract as it may seem. Richard Diebenkorn’s 1968 “Ocean Park No. 6" fairly breathes with intimations of human flesh; Frank Stella’s “Concentric Grey Square” defies its mechanical format by undulating so vigorously that it knocks Op Art off the map.

The most sobering message delivered by this summer spectacle is that there ought to be room for abstraction and representation, in all their modes. Fashion’s stranglehold is deadly, no matter who’s in vogue. (Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd. and 817 N. Hilldale Ave., to Aug. 24.)