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September 28, 2010

Abstract Expressionist Power Rankings

The Museum of Modern Art will open on October 3rd what director Glenn Lowry calls "the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever" of America's first homegrown major modern art movement, Abstract Expressionism. (Forget claims from Europhile art historians that taschisme--in English, "stainism" or "spotism"--was a Continental equal; it was puny and weak by comparison.) Since the 245 works in "Abstract Expressionist New York" derive entirely from MoMA's vaults, the performances, if you will, of individual artists, are skewed by what the Museum bought or was given. The scholarly but graphic-designy Robert Motherwell, for instance, seems to have been a fave of MoMA's inner circle and has six paintings in the exhibition, while the German emigré full-blast, push-pull colorist Hans Hofmann, who preferred running his own art school in Provincetown to kicking back at the Cedar Tavern with Franz, Bill, Jackson and the rest of the boys, presents but half that, and one of them is tiny. Still, this is a once-in-a-whenever opportunity to compare and contrast Gotham's AbExers while they're on the gallery walls at the same time. (You can do your own C&C all the way through April 25, 2011.) On the basis of a couple of hours spent at the press preview, here are my Paint-Slinger Power Rankings:

1. Willem de Kooning - Not the most radical, hardly even abstract much of the time, but still the greatest brush of the bunch and, over an incredibly long haul, produced the best--and quite varied--oeuvre of them all.

2. Jackson Pollock - For sheer thrills and chills, JP is at the top. But in spite of a surprisingly solid pre-drip production, there's still a whiff of idiot-savant, or at least KFC's old "We do chicken [and nothing else] right" hanging over him. If Pollock were a football team, his offense would be all long-bomb pass plays. Fun to watch, but you lose a few that way.

3. Arshile Gorky - Without Gorky, there's no de Kooning, no Pollock. His paint app is even more traditional than de Kooning's, but his sensitivity alone can make you weep.

4. Mark Rothko - Lots of reasons to abandon ship (the mawkish play, "Red," and the fact that too many spiritual types like him for being "spiritual"), but the paintings--just big color-shapes, remember--do give you a genuine feeling of transcendence. If he'd not had those horrible empty borders on the late grey paintings, he might be, well, #3b to Gorky's #3a, instead of a separate #4.

5. Hans Hofmann - A personal pick here. HH suffers unjustly from being such a great teacher ("If you can't do, teach," etc.) and a Teutonic pantheist bloviator (his handbook, "The Search for the Real"). But he took Cubism (one leg of AbEx, Surrealist "automatic writing" is the other) farther than any other artist in the show. And he transformed it into a large-scale chromatic phantasmagoria in the bargain.

6. Franz Kline - Just elementary composition lessons writ messily large? Sure. But what compositions! What writs!

7. Joan Mitchell - Possibly a bit of chauvinist condescension here. Gotta get a girl into this boys club at some point, preferably higher than at an afterthought #10. The reasonable choices are Mitchell, Lee Krasner, and Grace Hartigan. (Helen Frankenthaler's in the exhibition, but she's really more a member of the Color Field Conference, along with Morris Louis and Kenneth Nolan, than she is in the AbEx League.) Hartigan went figurative, and, I just don't know. Mitchell is a pure paint-mover and, reportedly, her temper would have had her come out on top in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, let alone brawls at the Cedar Tavern.

8. Barnett Newman - Sooey generis, as they say in Arkansas. You look at the paintings and their optical qualities make you a believer. Then you read what he had to say, and the words "emperor" and "new" and "clothes" occur to you. Then you look again, and believe again, and then you read again, and...

9. Clyfford Still - How could an absolute genius sign his paintings like a grade-schooler: first name only? (I used to tell students who did that to add a comma, and "age 20" afterward.) Another megalomaniac (he and Newman dueled in the letters column of ArtNEWS magazine, a feud which devolved to their respective wives taking over the epistolary battle), but the paintings are almost as dramatic as they pretend to be.

10. Philip Guston - Psst! All you neo-neo-neo expressionist painters who regard Guston as the godfather: His abstractions are better paintings. Really. Their subtle color and delicious brushstrokes don't need all that Smokey Stover existentialism. (And it'll be good for you tyros to look up Smokey Stover.)

Outside the Top Ten: Motherwell at #10 over Guston would be a flip-o'-the-coin. Adolph Gottleib, whose hovering black sunbursts used to seem too sweet, looks more solid in "Abstract Expressionist New York," plus he gets difficulty points for using pink. Mid-major programs who'd be Cinderella teams if the show were a tournament, include William Baziotes (would you ever guess that the fellow who painted these as-delicate-as-Paul-Klee pictures was a cigar-chomping boxing fan?) and Bradley Walker Tomlin. (Do AbExers have any real skill, or are they to fine art what Leonard Cohen is to singing? Well, back in the day, getting an M.F.A. from Syracuse required you to copy a "museum masterpiece," and Tomlin's very adroit riff on Manet's The Balcony--which was a riff on Goya's painting of the same name--used to grace a hallway in Crouse College.)

September 28, 2010 10:11 AM | | Comments (0)

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