It's a rare thing in the Southland to see a survey of native abstract art that is as hip, scholarly, comprehensive and concise as the one recently opened at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.
Rather stuffily titled "American Abstraction From the Addison Gallery of American Art," it still manages to function as a brilliantly clear short lecture on the essence of the form delivered by the world's best teachers, the works themselves. In this case that's more than 100 paintings, sculptures, photos and drawings ranging from the '20s to the '90s and bracketing talents of painters from Arthur Dove to Elizabeth Murray.
The Addison Gallery is at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., a preparatory school that boasts among its graduates Frank Stella, Mel Kedrick, Humphrey Bogart and George Bush. It also possesses a remarkable collection of abstract art that is both representative and offbeat. That's certainly due to their having gotten into the game as early as 1931. They have, among many other things, one of the only stark, barren Joseph Cornell's extant, and one of the most delicately beautiful small Alexander Calder mobiles imaginable.
These works are part of a national tour of the collection being launched at the Newport Harbor Art Museum to celebrate the gallery's 60th anniversary. Works were selected by Addison director Jock Reynolds. About the only discouraging word one can find to utter about all this is that the catalogue, albeit nicely illustrated, has a text that is too much about the history of Addison's collecting and not enough about the art.
Oh well. That comes clear enough on the walls.
At bottom, the show deals in the most fundamental aspects of the grammar of vision. There are basically only two ways to see things. Rational minds tend to order the world into neat, clear, smooth, linear geometric forms and muted color. That's the Classical impulse. For those who find the emotional preeminent, the less order the better. Messy organic shapes, fuzzed edges and noisy hues are what make life worth seeing. That's the Romantic urge.
Everybody knows that such distilled polarities are not true to human experience. It's in the way they overlap that vividness, expressive tension and a sense of veracity comes to both art and life. All the same a tendency toward pendulum swings between the rational and the emotional makes the clock of history tick and marks the mood of epochs. The show makes this point through the brilliant simplicity of juxtaposing like works by different artists.
This exhibition picks up at the turn of the decade, then moves into the '30s and finds artists as disparate at Man Ray, Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe all trafficking in somewhat weary, meandering organic shapes. The work feels a bit bored with life and in some typically American fashion, leaning to the solace of metaphysics.
It doesn't last long. Persistent and inventive, abstract art has nonetheless never been beloved in this country except when disguised and sterilized as design. As the Great Depression kicked in hard, Americans sought the reassurance of the recognizable. There is no Regionalist caricature here because that's not the Addison's mandate, but there is easily recognizable subject matter in Alexander Archipenko's "Streamlined Torso in Space," painted landscapes by Marsden Hartley and--guess who--Man Ray. Jacob Lawrence's mosaic-like "Kibitzers" has the staccato surface of his title.
Abstract art seems particularly charged with an impulse to utopian or visionary idealism. It had a wonderful moment in the '20s and '30s when the promises of technology interlocked with the humanity of the Jazz era. Photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White, Beaumont Newhall and Walker Evans matched their mechanical eyes with the gleaming skyscrapers, suspension bridges and electrical towers that promised great things. Cubism was the natural container for an art that wanted to imply the interlocking of the visible and ideal worlds. Patrick Henry Bruce made a species of planar purism. Charles Sheeler's precise architectural representations barely nodded to abstraction. Stuart Davis bowled one right down the middle with his slangy version in "Red Cart."
In the '40s, a funny sort of hybridization set in like a recoiled intellectual rejection of World War II realities. John McLaughlin and Joseph Albers shared an attraction to linear purism. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes and Naum Gabo made sculpture and photographs of forms that looked like rocks and driftwood that had been run through wind tunnels to turn them into machine parts. The classical impulse reasserted itself dreaming of a science-fiction world where everything was the product of pure theory.
There had to be a reaction to this elegant airlessness. Sure enough, along came the organic/subjective Romantics again in the form of the Abstract Expressionists. Hans Hofmann got the ball rolling with big Baroque shapes and the idea evolved through Kline, Gottlieb and the rest until it reached the agonized lyricism of Jackson Pollock or the Zen hum of Mark Tobey. Both are represented by bracingly unexpected works.
It was great stuff, but the sensibility got sandpapered to sawdust so naturally the Classicists had to come trooping back again. This time the intellectuals were enigmatic. Obdurately enigmatic like Ad Reinhardt. Sardonically enigmatic like Jasper Johns. Shrewdly enigmatic like Frank Stella. His "East Broadway" shows he has one amused foot in reality. This, after all, was the Indifferent Generation of the '50s. They weren't going to cop to anything.
According to size and number, Minimalism holds pride of place in this exhibition. That's probably a good thing as we tend to think of the style as being as monumental as it often was boring. There is enough variety of permutation here to disabuse one of both notions. There was the Romantic Minimalism of Agnes Martin and Brice Marden, the metaphysical academic Minimalism of Robert Ryman and Robert Mangold, the Conceptual game-theory Minimalism of Barry Le Va and Sol LeWitt. The latter has a neat wall-size work here that was specially made for the show and executed by gallery assistants who drew in sections of a grid by picking instructions out of a hat.
Eventually there had to be a reaction to so much reductivism so the Romantics reappear in the '80s in costumes made of funk and irony. The work is not really emotional enough to warrant its handle of Neo-Expressionism. It's more like Neo-Neurotic and in some ways harks back to the '40s. A certain idea of tradition is evoked here by including Mark di Suvero, who's always had a gritty Bop-and-Blues edge. But in this context Peter Halley, Elizabeth Murray and Allen Saret, like the Punk generation, are marked mainly by eccentricity for its own sake. Thank goodness for Martin Puryear. He's the sort of artist who reminds us that no style slot can be categorically rejected.
Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach , through May 2. Closed Mondays, (714) 759-1122.