This winter, fall into the dreamy storm of a Rothko color field in red. Dance under the constellations of Pollack’s starry skies. Surrender yourself on Barnett Newman’s tightrope. Mark the audacity. Awe the simplicity. Take notes. Write poems. Say, “I can do that!” and go ahead and do that. Do something. Do anything.
The Museum of Modern Art has promised one of the most comprehensive exhibitions on the Abstract Expressionists—those New York post-war iconoclasts, misfits, and (later) international superstars—ever assembled. And, for these specific artists, comprehensive probably means that we get to see very little similarity among the works on the surface. “So what did they have in common?” asks the curator in a video about the exhibition. “Not very much in terms of style…but for all of those artists it was an ultimately profound but urgent expression of self.” The mid-twentieth century was certainly a transformative time in the world. Perhaps the biggest question that loomed in the ether was something about how we were to live together in this world after such horror, such tragedy. How do we heal? The notion of genocide and how people mean to each other was a fresh wound, and these artists turned inward to carve out their own idiosyncratic understandings.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Though the pieces in this exhibition are turning sixty or more and about to cash in on their 401Ks, they seem more relevant than ever. The concerns of the 1940s and 50s were not unlike the concerns of this new millennium. Man’s inhumanity to man still howls in cities and in caves and everywhere in between. We still haven’t figured out that the difference between us and them is all in the spelling. And we’re still transforming, still evolving with new technologies that we have only begun to understand.
In this me me me age with all new proper nouns starting with the letter I, it may appear as if the spirit of the Abstract Expressionists is still alive and well. However, the scruffy grit of these artists could remind us what it truly means to be an individual—how a commitment to unique customization ultimately produces better products over an adherence on conformity, gimmick and fluff. Perhaps it is this notion, this uncompromising independence that defines America and that sometimes appears lost in the recent blaze of new interpretations and appropriations on the subject.
“See how free we are! as a nation of persons,” writes Frank O’Hara in poem about a painting from the era. This winter, let’s go see for ourselves.
Abstract Expressionist New York, The Museum of Modern Art, ?MoMA.org/abexny.