AMERICAN ABSTRACTION AT THE ADDISON
at the Terra Museum of American Art, through July 30
I went to the "American Abstraction at the Addison" exhibit, at the Terra Museum through July 30, hoping to see a few great pictures. That's generally the most one expects of a "Masterpieces From . . . " traveling show, especially when one knows that Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts, of which the Addison Gallery is a part, is a high school, albeit one of the country's wealthiest and most prestigious.
As generally happens, my preconceptions were wiped out. The works in many formats, all exhibited together, include more than a few great pieces by Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Jasper Johns, Mark Tobey, Joseph Cornell, Naum Gabo, and Ellsworth Kelly, among others. And the way the Terra Museum has installed the works does what museums almost always try but fail to do: create juxtapositions that genuinely illuminate each work, encouraging the viewer to see each in new ways.
It's a revelation to see photographs hanging on the same walls as paintings, a display format also used in the Addison Gallery. Modern art is commonly exhibited so that paintings are kept together, apart from other forms--the "big ticket" items are given preeminence. But a growing number of museums display 20th-century paintings, drawings, and sculptures together; the Art Institute, a sterling example, even includes some photos, though most of its photography collection is two flights down. The juxtapositions in this show also make it clear that these "abstract" artists were, despite their differences, often engaged in related projects.
Near the show's starting point a large Stuart Davis canvas, Red Cart (1932), is flanked by two photographs. The Davis is a dense arrangement of thick areas of color that are so separate the work almost seems like a collage. It's a view of a fishing village; we recognize a cart, a barrel, buildings, and several kinds of netting. On the left is Margaret Bourke-White's Looking Up Inside Sending Tower, N.B.C., Bellmore, L.I. (1933) and on the right is Beaumont Newhall's Chase National Bank, New York (1928). Both photos look up at tall structures that display a dense array of rectilinear forms. Returning to the Davis, one is more aware of its rectangular geometries of nets and buildings. But the Davis also has a somewhat irregular, jazz-inspired rhythm; its organization is far from symmetrical. Looking again at the Bourke-White photo, of a very symmetrical radio tower, one's eye begins to notice irregularities and asymmetries, most of them a result of the photographer's point of view; the image has at least a little of Davis's music.
Several Minor White photographs with titles like Moon and Wall Encrustations (1964) are on another wall next to John Chamberlain's crushed-metal sculpture Belvo-Violet (1962). The photos are dark, almost abstract; one feels sure the complex, irregular forms are drawn from nature, however uncertain their identity. Chamberlain's sculpture combines many pieces of metal--with a variety of shapes, colors, rust patterns--whose sources also can't be easily identified. Encountering the diversity of forms and surfaces, looking at them from the front and the sides, the viewer experiences a number of perceptual shifts. Returning then to the flat White photos, one senses their mysterious shapes not as simple designs on paper but as strange, not fully understandable forms in space.
Perhaps the show's richest juxtaposition involves two Adolf Gottlieb abstract expressionist paintings grouped around four Aaron Siskind photographs. The Siskinds are all images of peeling, sometimes graffiti-covered walls. Bronx 1 (1950) has a graffito of concentric circles. Gloucester 3 (1945) shows a wall area covered by black paint under an area covered by white, the two divided by a curved line; both have places where the paint has worn away, revealing the very different pattern of the bare wood. A casual viewer might regard these as interesting but somewhat academic formalist studies.
To the right, Gottlieb's Vigil of the Cyclops (1947), one of his "pictographic" works, arranges a variety of shapes in a grid. Some are representational, some not. All are unexplainable; they evoke the realms of archetypes, dreams, the unconscious. To the left, Gottlieb's Rectangle Landscape (1953) places red and black round shapes above a "ground" filled with abstract black, white, and yellow marks. While less specific than his pictographs, these marks are highly suggestive. Hovering between objects and a written language, but with hints of both, they transport the viewer out of the present moment.
Return to Siskind and his photos are transformed. His careful selection and framing creates images that are not only perfectly ordered but profoundly allusive. These cracks and marks on walls are no longer merely interesting formal patterns, no longer signs of urban decay; they too are like some secret language, and images that at first seem obviously materialist become transcendent.
Even a random rehanging of a collection could bring out interesting connections between works, though many of those would doubtless be the result of creative viewing. But the connections encouraged by the Terra's installation are not merely serendipitous. Siskind exhibited his photographs in a gallery that showed abstract expressionist painters and was friends with many of them. Indeed, Siskind and Gottlieb became friends back in the 1920s, long before either reached artistic maturity.
Most of these artists are engaged in a common spiritual quest. The movement toward abstraction in modern art has long been identified, since Kandinsky and Mondrian, with a movement away from the daily seeing we all share toward some deeper, inner reality. Thus when images that depict or incorporate the seen world also alter that world, the alteration is often a carrier of the artist's vision. In Jacob Lawrence's painting Kibitzers (1948) the figures' backs fill most of the composition; each back displays a similar pattern of lighter and darker tones that when taken together give the image a powerful design that seems to have little to do with its ostensible subject. Martin Puryear's untitled 1981 wood sculpture, placed on the same wall, bends basswood into a hoop whose ends almost meet. The wood's surface is rough and multicolored, while the circle injects an element of human-made formal perfection.
Many of these artists find in the visible world inspiration for their abstract forms; titles sometimes provide clues. The use of the visible as a source for abstract art is often connected with a double impulse: to transform the world into the artist's ordered vision, but also to revivify the viewer's seeing of the world by revealing some aspect of its essential form. A large early Stella painting, East Broadway (1958), assigns a street name to a horizontal pattern of black and yellow stripes interrupted by a doorlike rectangle. The stripes are not ruler straight, as Stella's later patterns are; this image suggests that urban grids provided at least some of the inspiration for his later works. The white lines in Mark Tobey's Lines of the City (1948) are dense and just regular enough to suggest an urban source, but too gentle and organic to be a literal record of any single urban thing: instead he creates a private inner garden.
Juxtaposing other pictures that are formally somewhat alike brings out not their similarities but their differences. Photos by Walker Evans, Untitled-#90, (Brooklyn Bridge) (1929), and Robert Frank, Houston (1955-'56), are next to Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Painting, Red (1952). In the Evans the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge forms a black band that recedes into the background, while the Frank shows mostly the flat side of a building and empty sky. Both are urban abstractions with the kinds of relatively simple geometries that enrich the city viewer's daily seeing. The Reinhardt presents an even simpler geometry--a seven-by-three grid of squares of different shades of red, some hard to distinguish from the others. It confronts the viewer with an absoluteness that refers to nothing else: one can only experience and reexperience its colors. It offers not a deepening of the everyday but an alternative.
The photographer and filmmaker Hollis Frampton is represented by eight photographs from a 52-photo series, The Secret World of Frank Stella (1958-'62). Frampton described this series as a reference to photographic tradition, a parody of the photographic cliche: "The photographs, to encompass my aim, had to be 'bad.'" Indeed, Stella is posed in a variety of conventional ways--leaning against a barber's pole, perched amidst construction girders; none of the photos is particularly striking in itself. It may also be that by placing Stella amid urban grids and stripes Frampton was parodying the art-book tradition of showing the artist in "his world," implying that artists merely paint what they see. But there's a quality to Frampton's inventory, even in the adumbrated version on view here, that transcends parody. The viewer of one or two photographs is trapped in their cliches. The viewer of all eight sees that the different, often opposite pictorial cliches--Stella as a heroic sculpture, Stella as a street person--tend to cancel each other out. The viewer of one photo tends to identify with its perspective; the viewer of eight is no longer implicated in any of these particular, long-ossified ways of seeing. One is instead viewing an inventory, as if from afar.
A further understanding of the effect of an inventory can be gleaned from Stella's own series of nine lithographs, Black Series I (1967). Arranged in a three-by-three grid, the prints all have one or two images of white lines bent at right angles on a black background. Any one of these might be misunderstood as a strictly minimalist assertion of the primacy of straight lines; taken together, the images become a list of the possibilities of this particular visual language.
In Stella's limited visual vocabulary some patterns are almost mirror images of others, so that no one image can be seen as "true" unless its opposite is also true. Thus the passage from one image to the next also becomes a passage out of the first: a journey from an initial point to a deeper and more complete truth. This parallels other artists' movement toward abstraction, in which the desire to move away from the given world becomes a wish to transcend any specific image.
Frampton's and Stella's list making also carries with it the implication that they wish to explore all the possibilities of a particular mode--after which, one assumes, they'll proceed to other modes. In fact, Stella's work today is nothing like these earlier pieces, and Frampton's final film project, left unfinished at his death, was a gigantic multipart work titled Magellan.
It's worth remarking that Stella and Frampton, along with the sculptor Carl Andre, were classmates and friends at Phillips Academy. A number of the other artists in this exhibit are also alumni, and many of the works were donated by alumni; even a rich prep school is likely to get a Jasper Johns only if Frank Stella donates it. In an interesting essay in the well-illustrated catalog the current gallery director, Jock Reynolds, describes the school's history of art collecting and art education, with its early openness to new art and new media and its willingness to seek unexpected connections between different kinds of works; Stella is quoted remembering a lecture in which "a hubcap was compared to an African mask." This exhibit offers no contrasts that extreme, but the comparisons it does offer are something of a revelation.