Figures in the Field

In 1936, Robert Coates, used the term Abstract Expressionism (AbEx) in the March issue of The New Yorker.  Coates did not attribute this term to any one style but rather a general attitude shared by the artist of that time. This attitude was characterized by a spirit of revolt and a belief in freedom of expression.

Later, the movement was linked with the style called ‘painterly.’  ‘Painterly’ depicts blurred, broken and merging qualities of color and contour.  Color and value were two major elements of painterly AbEx. Many artists followed this trend with few variations. Among these some showed great control on these elements like Rothko and Pollock, but many artists just followed the style with an emphasis on these two elements of painting.

Red Abstract, Mark Rothko, 1944

In 1960’s a reaction to ‘painterly’ AbEx came into lime light. In this reaction the ‘painterly’ effect of merging values and broken contours was replaced by thin layers and subtle values of colors and well-defined contours of shapes and lines. This way the role of elements of painting was reduced to their essentials, where one can distinctly identify a point, a line and a color field. In this kind of painting, contrasting difference in values in the frame of painting make it a whole instead of overlapping values in a form. This new abstract quality simplified the essence of painting and pushed it out of the restriction of form.

The current exhibition, Figures in the Field, at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, includes works dating from the 1960’s.  In this exhibition we can distinctly see the emergence and development of ‘Color Field Painting’ and ‘Hard-Edge Painting,’ whereas the ‘painterly’ effect of Abstract Expressionism is taking the back seat.   All the artists in this show seem to move away from the painterly abstractness to the linear openness of design. The  Jean Harlow Night, Black and Blue by Jules Olilski  has four semi-circular bands of color with precise contours, overlapping each other at some points but keeping some distance from each other at other points. They are placed on the horizontal plane of the picture. These color bands are creating a tension partly due to the shift in warm to cool colors and partly due to the firm contours residing close to each other. Just Desserts by Monique Preto creates the sense of gravity by the same technique of overlapping shapes and firm contours. Two Widths of the Epsilon Ring by Carrie Gundersdorl and Tel Aviv by Gene Davis are somewhat painterly in their appearance but they keep the freshness and spontaneity of linear abstraction as their basic essence. . In Two Widths of the Epsilon Ring,the vertical lines blurs into the silhouette background of the large canvas, loosing their firm contour, whereas in Tel Aviv, the color bands merge to make different values of color to create grades of depth. Judy Ledgerwood, in Driving into Delirium, has a painterly approach too, but by the vastness of its framing area and relatively subtle differences in the values, she manages a new expressiveness in this painting.  Bruce Marden’s 8 falls somewhere in between ‘painterly’ and Hard-Edge abstraction in its pictorial appearance. The broad bleeding lines blur at their edges and at times merge into the linen surface.

Driving Into Delirium, Judy Ledgerwood, 1995.

Figures in the Field also includes sculptural works such as Jeff Koons’s Pink Panther, Felix by Maurizio Cattelan and Tom Friedman’s Untitled Cardboard Robot. These sculptures are juxtaposed with paintings. This has created a tension in which the eye moves from a purely abstract painting like Study of Homage to the Square, Pale Autumn by Josef Albers, to a realistic sculpture like Big Baby by Ron Mueck. This placement keeps the viewer moving from the realistic impressions of the world to the creative imagination of artistic impression.


Pink Panther, Jeff Koons

When the critic Greenberg said that he sees painting from Velázquez till today in the works of modern art, he probably meant that the creative efforts of the past open avenues for the creative efforts of the present. The movement  Abstract Expressionism has been a concrete path for artists to tackle new challenges of expression in modern times.

Imran Omer

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