OUTSIDER/INSIDER: Abstract Expressionism at Matthews Gallery

Stanley Boxer and Robert Motherwell at Matthews Gallery Boxer (left) and Motherwell

It was Mark Rothko’s 111th birthday this Friday, and the occasion has us pondering one of the 20th century’s most polarizing art movements: abstract expressionism.

Three artworks by renowned abstract expressionists have recently landed on our walls. The first two are heavily impastoed oil paintings by Stanley Boxer, who resolutely clung to the far fringes of the movement. Determined to defy labels, he was furious when art critic Clement Greenberg called him a color field painter, and yet the arc of his creative explorations closely paralleled that of his abstract expressionist contemporaries:

In the manufacture of my art, I use anything and everything which gets the job done without any sentiment or sanctity as to medium. Then, too, I have deliberately made a practice of being “visionless”… this is, I go where my preceding art takes me, and never try to redirect the future as to what my art should look like. This is a general credo and foundation for everything I have ever done and stands firm in its solidity as this is written.

Boxer, who died in 2000, would have loved Grace Glueck’s New York Times review of a 2004 exhibition of his late works. She notes that he was “never part of a movement or trend,” but rather driven by paint’s “physical possibilities without script or program.”

Abstract Paintings by Stanley Boxer- Matthews Gallery Blog Atriumofashreddednight  (top) and Crisppitchofsigh, Oil on Linen

Glueck ends the piece with a brief analysis of Boxer’s titles, lyrical lists of words that are jammed together in unbroken strings. The works in our collection, for example, have names that read like fragments of beat poems: Atriumofashreddednight and Crisppitchofsigh. Glueck writes, “As Boxer joked in his titles, these canvases, more than most, do not really lend themselves to verbal exposition. They live for the eye, to which they bring deep satisfaction.”

Boxer’s titles provide a link to Robert Motherwell, the other abstract expressionist represented in our collection. Unlike many “abex” artists who labeled their canvases using dates or arbitrary numbers, Boxer and Motherwell were unapologetic in their wordplay.

That’s where the similarity ends. While Boxer considered himself an isolated frontiersman of abstract painting, Motherwell was an eager icon of abstract expressionism. He coined the term ‘New York School’ to describe his revolutionary circle, which included Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and acted as a spokesperson for the movement in the world of academia.

If Boxer’s titles were little more than impressionistic quips, Motherwell, who was a scholar before he became a “serious artist” and wrote numerous essays on aesthetics, chose names that have inspired endless analysis. His most famous series of paintings, Elegies to the Spanish Republic, chronicles the Spanish Civil War in bold strokes of black and white and subtle passages of ochre, blue, green and red.

Mainly, I use each color as simply symbolic: ochre for the earth, green for the grass, blue for the sky and sea,” Motherwell wrote. “I guess that black and white, which I use most often, tend to be protagonists.” In varying contexts, each color holds a universe of meanings. To fully understand the use of ochre in Motherwell’s Spanish Elegies, “You would have to know that a Spanish bull ring is made of sand of an ochre color,” the artist wrote.  Other works that feature ochre, like Western Air or Personage, with Yellow Ochre and White, would naturally spark different associations. 

Robert Motherwell- Africa 4- Silkscreen- Matthews Gallery Blog Robert Motherwell, Africa 4, Silkscreen

What to make of our Motherwell silkscreen, titled Africa 4? Motherwell completed the Africa suite in 1970, the same year he created his Basque and London suites. They were his first projects entirely devoted to silkscreens, and a divergence from the heavily layered nuances of his oil paintings. Here his black abstract forms stand crisply against their off-white backgrounds, although on closer inspection, their tumultuous edges still seem to weave in an out of focus.

“All my works [consist] of a dialectic between the conscious (straight lines, designed shapes, weighed color, abstract language) and the unconscious (soft lines, obscured shapes, automatism) resolved into a synthesis,” the artist wrote in 1944.

Motherwell first explored the concepts of automatism and the subconscious with a group of Parisian Surrealists, including Duchamp, Ernst and Masson, who had fled Europe during World War II.  Their ideas would help shape the spiritual side of abstract expressionism, a spontaneous, intuitive element that Motherwell carefully balanced with his more intellectual inclinations.

Motherwell’s connection to the Surrealists lends us a potential clue to the significance of the ‘Africa’ title. In his 1946 essay ‘Beyond the Aesthetics‘, Motherwell discusses the life of French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, who helped inspire Surrealism. In the final decades of his life Rimbaud quit writing and set off on an African expedition, a leap of faith that Motherwell compares to the Surrealists’ break from Dada and formation of a new movement:

Like Rimbaud before them, the Surrealists abandoned the aesthetic altogether; it takes a certain courage to leave poetry for Africa (as Rimbaud did, fh). They revealed their insight as essentially moral in never forgetting for a moment that most living is a process of conforming to an established order which is inhuman in its drives and consequences. Their hatred sustained them through all the humiliating situations in which the modern artist find himself, and led them to conceptions beyond the reach of more passive souls. For them true ‘poetry’ was freedom from mechanical social responses. No wonder they loved the work of children and the insane – if not the creatures themselves.

Perhaps Motherwell’s Africa suite represents a similar journey, a leap into the unknown that is a clear break from previous adventures. Just as Rimbaud abandoned an intellectual pursuit for one centered on travel and action, and as the Surrealists broke from the societal battles of the Dadaists to explore dreamscapes, so Motherwell’s stark Africa forms landed him in a new realm of image-making. Perhaps he sought to prove that even the most distinctly divided blacks and whites could possess endless shades of grey.

Learn more about Stanley Boxer and Robert Motherwell on our website, and make sure to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr for more gallery news.

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The 10 Artists Who Changed Art History Forever, Pt. 2

To top off our list of art history’s most influential players (click here for part 1), we had to make some tough decisions. Would Monet still be known today if not for a fateful trip to the seashore with Boudin? Who had a greater influence on abstract expressionism: Pollock or De Kooning? Browse our choices and let us know if you agree or disagree in comments below or on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Eugene Boudin, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Trouville, Eugene Boudin

 6. Eugene Boudin (1824-1898)

French painter Eugene Boudin grew up riding across the English Channel on his father’s steamboat between his home village of Honfleur and the city of Le Havre. Boudin’s mother put an end to the voyages when the young boy nearly drowned, and the family moved to Le Havre to open a picture frame shop. Perhaps it was these early years at sea—and that terrifying dip in the tumbling waves—that drove Boudin to create the small but dynamic compositions that would directly inspire Impressionism.

As a young man Boudin opened his own framing shop and showed work by artists such as Constant Troyon and Jean-Francois Millet. At 22 he started painting full-time, capturing coastal scenes with an impeccable eye for light and a keen interest in the social interactions of beach-goers. He was greatly influenced by the 16th century Dutch masters, and was one of the first French painters to work in the outdoors.

Boudin moved to Paris on a scholarship when he was 23 and soon met the teenage Claude Monet. Monet was working as a caricaturist on the streets of Paris, but Boudin convinced him to travel to Normandy and paint en plein air. In 1874 Boudin showed work in the first Impressionist exhibition alongside Monet’s pivotal Impression, Sunrise, which was painted in Le Havre and inspired the name of the new movement. Without Boudin’s encouragement, Monet may never have moved past charcoal.

Pissarro, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Two Women Chatting by the Sea”, Camille Pissarro

 7. Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) 

Picasso and Matisse called Paul Cezanne “the father of us all”, but there’s always a mentor behind a master. Cezanne was heavily influenced by Danish-French Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. “He was a father for me,” Cezanne said. “A man to consult and a little like the good Lord.”

Pissarro grew up on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies and attended a boarding school near Paris. In school he studied the French masters and excelled at drawing and painting. He moved to Paris in 1855 to apprentice with Anton Melbye and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. While Corot worked on his paintings in the studio, Pissarro insisted on painting en plein air and often finished works in one sitting.

The artist was criticized for his technique, which often exposed the rougher, less picturesque side of the French landscape, but his quick, intuitive methods attracted a small group of artists who would soon be known as the Impressionists. Pissarro became their patriarch, and was the only artist to participate in all eight Impressionist exhibitions. However, it was his switch to Neo-Impressionism at 54 and his great influence on Post Impressionism that landed him on this list. Pissarro’s impulse to look deeper into the landscape and trace every rough edge would inspire Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne in their revolutionary explorations of perspective that would fracture (and eventually completely dissolve) the classical picture plane.

Pablo Picasso, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Dora Maar au Chat, Pablo Picasso

 8. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) 

Pablo Picasso is arguably the most famous—and prolific—artist of the 20th century. He created roughly 13,500 paintings and hundreds of thousands more prints, engravings, illustrations and sculptures over the course of his 75-year career. Though he’s famous for co-developing Cubism, it was his explorations into all corners of the plastic arts that made him so influential. No matter the medium or style, Picasso had a hand in radically changing it all.

The artist was born in Malaga, Spain. His father was a professor of art who began formally training his son from a very young age. By 16, Picasso had gained entrance to the prestigious Royal Academy of San Fernando. In the early 1900s he moved to Paris, where he met art collector Gertrude Stein and many of the most famous artists of the time. He started working with Georges Braque in 1909, and the close friends developed a style that pushed Cezanne’s explorations of multiple perspectives to new extremes.

Cubism encouraged artists to analyze objects and break them into thousands of pieces, and similarly shattered the art world into myriad Modernist movements from Futurism to Constructivism.

Pollock, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
No. 5, 1948, Jackson Pollock

9. Jackson Pollock (1912- 1956) 

Jackson Pollock was called “Jack the Dripper” and “The Worst Living Artist in America” by the media, and a large slice of the public saw him as a reclusive drunkard who dealt the killing blow to order and sense in art. Sometimes when you’re drumming up an art revolution, things have to get messy.

Pollock grew up the youngest of five brothers in Arizona and California. He and his brother Charles moved to New York City in 1930, where he studied at the Art Students League and worked for the WPA Federal Art Project. In 1936 he took an experimental workshop on liquid paint that would later influence his famous drip paintings. Under the watchful eyes of collector Peggy Guggenheim, art critic Clement Greenberg and his wife Lee Krasner, who he married in 1947, Pollock would become the figurehead of the Abstract Expressionist movement and radically change the world’s definition of art.

Greenberg saw Abstract Expressionism as the final step in painting’s inevitable reduction to its most essential elements. There was an unmatched purity to Pollock’s atmospheric, gravity free color fields that only the eye could traverse. “Jackson was the greatest painter this country has produced,” Greenberg mused. Whether you agree with the critic or not, Pollock undoubtedly subverted figurative painting in an unprecedented way, and changed art history in the process.

Andy Warhol, click here to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol

10. Andy Warhol (1928-1987) 

Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Austro-Hungarian immigrants. In third grade he developed Sydenham’s Cholera, a disorder of the nervous system that left him bedridden for months at a time. Isolated from his peers, the shy child became a voracious student of pop culture. Just a few years later he would build his own towering pedestal using the very figures and symbols that he pinned on his bedroom walls.

Warhol graduated from high school in 1945 and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology for commercial art. In 1949 he moved to New York City, where he worked in the publishing and advertising industries and got his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in pictorial design. In the 1950’s RCA records hired Warhol as a designer, where he pioneered innovations in various image-making techniques, most notably in screen printing. At the same time he was using similar processes—and subject matter—in his fine art, which he showed in galleries around New York. It was an approach to art that offended many critics at the time, who accused Warhol of succumbing to the homogenizing forces of consumerism.

This was Warhol’s true impact on art history: to show contemporary artists that they couldn’t avoid or ignore the foundational social changes affected by the mass media. Whether he was exploring identity, vanity, sexuality, fame or nothing at all, Warhol was molding the mercurial landscapes of Modern and Postmodern art.

Don’t forget to read part 1 of this series, and connect with us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest to let us know who you would choose!