"The Interpretive Link: Abstract Surrealism Into Abstract Expressionism," opening today at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, aims to explode the Big Bang theory of American art's rise to glory.
The exhibition of 137 works on paper (from 1938 to 1948) insists that Abstract Expressionism did not burst out of New York studios like a grubby orphan possessed with genius. The movement that sprang up in the '40s and finally moved the world's center of contemporary art from Paris to New York is a respectable member of art history's family--a pedigreed fellow with famous ancestors and a proud heritage.
According to curator Paul Schimmel, who organized the exhibition, Abstract Expressionism's link with the preceding movement of Surrealism is a body of work he calls Abstract Surrealism. Through this art--a combination of representation and abstraction--one can trace the evolution of Jackson Pollock's drips, Barnett Newman's zips and Mark Rothko's clouds of color.
This is not a new thesis, as Schimmel is quick to note. Some of the artists' own retrospectives and a couple of major group exhibitions have explored the topic. But as long as we have a book on our shelf called "The Triumph of American Painting" (by Irving Sandler) and people who interpret Abstract Expressionism as an isolated, nationalistic achievement, it is not redundant to reconsider the subject. That there is strong professional interest in the period is proved by the show's itinerary: When it leaves Newport, "The Interpretive Link" will travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Schimmel has taken on "the link" in an original way by concentrating exclusively on drawings. That decision alone is enough to deter viewers who think that drawings are necessarily inferior to paintings, but don't stop reading. He had good reasons.
First, drawings have an immediacy and spontaneity about them that encourage ideas in the making.
Second, because artists are inclined to try things first in drawings, one can see the beginnings of their trademark styles three or four years earlier than in paintings.
Third, requests for loans of drawings are far less numerous than those for popular paintings, so Schimmel was able to pull together a top-quality show of drawings instead of a second- or third-rate batch of canvases.
Working with 200 lenders and settling on works from 62 different collections, Schimmel pulled some wonderful, often little-known pieces out of closets. Richly colored, collaged and often rendered in liquid mediums, many of them don't fit standard expectations of drawings.
The show of works by 22 artists seems huge as it runs on through a labyrinth of small galleries. Only the dedicated will find all the connections that Schimmel has set forth to be discovered, but only the blind will fail to see that the art does indeed link Surrealism's illusionistic representation with Abstract Expressionism's emotional gestures.
Though one gets an occasional big, bold surprise--as in Wifredo Lam's primitive, Picasso-esque creatures or Robert Motherwell's elegant "Figure With Blots"--the typical picture is small and intricate. The variety defies a catch-all description, but one repeatedly sees fragments of recognizable life suspended in a web of abstraction.
The wiry, energetic Pollocks are teeming with faces, figures and plant forms. Gottlieb tucks eyes, mouths, crosses and portals into rectangular compartments. Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren) strings up tortured figures, while William Baziotes brushes softly suggestive biomorphic compositions.
The problem was to make art in the midst of upheaval--both social and artistic. European artists fleeing their war-torn countries and Americans being drawn into the war weren't ready for cool abstraction but they were fed up with Surrealism's shallow wit. The obvious solution was to edge toward a form of abstraction that would retain human emotion.
Eager to express complex feelings simply and to reveal the unknown, they turned to myths and metaphors. The artists looked back to the purity of primitive art and into their souls for associative images that would suggest birth, death and evolution.
Joan Miro, the only artist included who wasn't living in America during this period, was the Abstract Surrealists' most important mentor, and his works are the touchstone of the exhibition. Arshile Gorky (often called the last Surrealist and the first Abstract Expressionist) is the show's center, for his drawings most consistently effect a fluid blend of dream and reality, intuition and analysis, representation and abstraction.
It's curious that the Abstract Surrealism displayed here has been seen as an American movement. Though 21 of the 22 artists lived here during World War II, they hailed from France, Armenia, Bavaria, Chile, Cuba, England and Austria, as well as the United States. There's scarcely a touch of American regionalism or provincialism in their work; it comes primarily from an internationally flavored European tradition. This, of course, is part of the point of the show: America's international "triumph" in art can't be divorced from the mix of its melting pot.
The Newport Museum claims that "The Interpretive Link" is its most ambitious effort to date, and there's no reason to doubt it. But the exhibition's strength--its illumination of a link between two major periods--contains its weakness: Abstract Surrealism is a transitional period. It tends to fortify the giants on either side of it instead of presenting itself as a major competitor.
Still, the show is a substantial scholarly project. Of greatest interest to connoisseurs, the work is so intriguing and its premise so clear that it should satisfy more casual viewers. In conjunction with the show, the museum has organized a series of lectures, films and poetry readings. Artist Gordon Onslow Ford will present a lecture called "Automatism and Spontaneity" tonight at 8 at the museum. Call (714) 759-1122 for information on other events. "The Interpretive Link" (through Sept. 14) is sponsored by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Council for the Humanities and the Irvine Co.