By Arthur Stampleman
Twenty-three works by 13 artists are included in “American Abstraction: The Print Revival of the 1960s and ’70s,” which opened at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich last month. All the works are from the Museum’s permanent collection, and many are being exhibited at the Bruce for the first time.
Several of the works are by artists well known to visitors who follow the abstract expressionists and modern art — Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson, and Alexander Calder. But there are a number that were new names for me: Stanley Hayter, Frank Lobdell, Ulfret Wilkie, Matsui Kanemitsu, Raymond Parker, Bruce Conner, Deborah Remington, Sidney Gordin, Garo Zareh Antreasian, and Joop Sanders.
The artists included in the exhibition practiced varying modes of abstraction with influences ranging from Kazimir Malevich and Henri Matisse to Jackson Pollock and Carl Andre. While 20th-century abstraction is broad and varied, the artists exhibited here, working in the 1960s and ’70s, were primarily interested in gestural marks, hard-edge forms, and biomorphic shapes.
The term “hard-edge” was coined by a Californian critic, describing the work of those abstract painters, particularly on the West Coast, who reacted to the more painterly or gestural forms of abstract expressionism by adopting a consciously impersonal approach to paint application. Their paintings were made up of monochromatic fields of clean-edged color that reinforced the flatness of the picture surface. Two artists, Parker and Antreasian, are good examples of this approach, the first with varied shapes and bright colors, the second with firm symmetric shapes and muted colors.
In a 1936 catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art, museum director Alfred H. Barr coined the term “biomorphism” to describe the trend of curvilinear, decorative, and romantic forms in abstract art. These artworks drew upon the organic shapes of plants and animals, rejecting the rigid structures of geometric abstraction in favor of something much more free flowing. The best example here is Connor’s, though Parker’s also fits.
“Gestural” is a term used to describe the application of paint or another medium in free sweeping gestures. The term originally came into use to describe the works of the abstract expressionist artists, Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Motherwell, Hans Hofmann, and others. The artist would physically act out his or her inner impulses and their emotions or state of mind would be read by the viewer in the resulting marks. In addition to the Motherwell, the Nevelson and Wilke works fit this category. The Nevelson does not stand up to her sculpture. Wilke’s two black-and-white lithographs have exactly the same gestural markings but with the colors reversed – one gets an entirely different feeling depending on which work one looks at.
Printmaking workshops in Europe have a long and documented history; most emerged after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Master printmakers would train apprentices to reproduce artists’ designs. It was not until the 20th century, however, that artists and printmakers in the United States began to produce prints as a creative team.
The printmakers and studios represented in the exhibit played a major role in cementing the importance of prints in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s — Atelier 17, Tamarind, Irwin Hollander, and Ernest de Soto.
All but two of the works in the exhibit are lithographs. The Neveleson is an etching and aquatint, and one Hayter is an etching. (The indention in the paper is one clue that those particular pieces are etchings.)
The Bruce Museum is open every day but Monday from 10 to 5. The “American Abstraction” show is on view until March 1. Also on view, until April 1, is “Treasures of the Earth,” an exhibit of 100 eye-catching specimens displaying the beauty, wonder, and science of minerals. For information, call 203-869-0376 or visit www.brucemuseum.org.
Ulfret Wilke, German (1907—1987) <Untitled,>1968. Lithograph
Gift of Judith and Stephen Wertheimer. Printed by The Collectors Press Lithography Workshop, San Francisco. Bruce Museum Collection
Garo Antreasian, American (1922-) <Untitled>, 1970. Lithograph Gift of Judith and Stephen Wertheimer. Printed by The Collectors Press Lithography Workshop, San Francisco. Bruce Museum Collection
Raymond Parker, American (1922—1990) <Untitled>, c. 1969-71. Lithograph. Gift of Judith and Stephen Wertheimer. Printed by The Collectors Press Lithography Workshop, San Francisco. Bruce Museum Collection
Photos by Paul Mutino