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All About the Art

February 19, 2009 By:
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I have always argued that the 1950s, forever pegged as the decade of conformity, were far more varied and perhaps even more revolutionary -- at least, in the realm of the arts -- than was the subsequent decade that's looked back on, especially by once-radical college students, with sincere fondness. Wherever you look in the '50s, you can see evidence of the artistic and emotional fervor that was breaking out across the placid surface of everyday life. Yes, of course, there were those who, after the struggles of the 1930s and the intensity of the war years, were looking to find a more settled and more prosperous life, but could you blame them? They fought in or withstood the most devastating war the world had ever witnessed, and they had comported themselves admirably.

So if they left the old neighborhoods once they returned from battle, and bought into suburbia, what of it? Didn't they deserve some peace? And what have their children done that's so much better, we great revolutionaries of the 1960s? Countless numbers of us bought into "suburbia," not once but multiple times, in the form of numerous homes, all over the country and the planet. Let's not forget that the catch phrase of the mid-1970s and '80s -- when we were all making our marks in the world -- was "The one who has the most toys wins" (as columnist Michael Kinsley recently reminded us in a splendid article in The New Yorker).

And more important than those who were seeking a placid existence was what was going on all around them in the culture during the 1950s -- all kinds of creativity, even on the political level. (Let's not forget that the civil-rights movement occurred then, and it was often our parents who pointed us underlings in that direction and inspired us to get involved.) Another point to be kept in mind is that the cultural ferment of the '50s was often supported by our elders with their time and their money.

The evidence is overwhelming, since this was the period in American life when the arts literally exploded and arts funding just took off.

George Balanchine was reconfiguring dance with his New York City Ballet, and setting off on a career that became one of the high watermarks in all of 20th-century art.

In the theater, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill were all being produced and creating some of their most enduring work. The heyday of the American musical comedy was under way, with shows like Guys and Dolls, West Side Story and My Fair Lady cropping up every season. And the off-Broadway movement was kicking up its heels and making milestones of its own.

In the literary world, a true counterculture was active as the Beats came to the fore and set the stage, perhaps unknowingly, for the rebellions of the 1960s. Major literary careers were also being established in more mainstream circles -- think William Styron, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, to say nothing of that Jewish American triumvirate, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth.

More to the point for this particular review, New York had suddenly become the center of the art world, stealing the spotlight from Paris by way of pioneering certain Abstract Expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

Which brings us to the book Declaring Space, published by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in association with Prestel publishers; it has as one of its goals to remind us of what an exciting time it was when all this art was being created. Rothko and Newman are represented here, along with the works of Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein.

This volume had two goals: Not only were the artists and the works to be celebrated, but so was the Fort Worth museum itself. As Marla Price, its director, writes in the foreword, these four artists "exemplify the innovations" of the 1950s and '60s, which also "constitute a foundational period in the Museum's mission to elucidate the history of post-World War II art."

The other significant point the show itself made was how Abstract Expressionism led to some of the minimalism in the '60s, as well as installation and performance art. The general consensus, especially for those who enjoy fighting the culture wars, has been that Pop Art and Minimalism marked a decided break from the past -- the historical moment when modernism ceded space to postmodernism.

Michael Auping, who organized the exhibition that led to this book, apparently thinks differently and makes a persuasive case, both visually -- the book is quite stunning -- and textually. There may have been, the curator appears to be saying, much less of a break than originally imagined, that Newman's thin beautiful lines of paint and Rothko's large blocks of competing hues pointed directly to Fontana's more minimalist experiments and Klein's playfulness with color.

The nature of space and how it was used by all of these artists was clearly at the crux of the show. Auping looked to Kazimir Malevich, one of the pioneers of abstraction at the beginning of the 20th century, for a definition of what modern, painterly space might be and how it would be manipulated. Malevich "pointed to a new type of space in painting, describing a metaphorical journey, as if he were rocketing into a new realm where our awareness of the dynamics of space would displace our need to hold onto objects as the only way of grasping reality. Space itself would hold out the greater challenge to understanding the nature of existence. 'The ascent to the objectless heights of art is difficult,' he wrote ... . Malevich knew that his small but potent white-on-white abstractions were the beginning of this journey, and that subsequent generations of abstract artists would likely find their own way of navigating this space."

Malevich was clearly correct, as mid-century art in America and Europe demonstrated -- and this exhibition so potently reflected.

Declaring Space is a wonderfully tactile sort of book that gives readers a clear sense of how one particular exhibit looked and even felt, in a way -- a rare treat in an art book. It also provides many glimpses of the influence these pieces had far beyond the confines of the exhibition halls in Fort Worth.

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