If you were one of the richest men or women in Jacksonville, what would you do with all your money? Maybe you'd buy a yacht. Maybe you'd buy enough gold chains to make Mr. T jealous. Or perhaps you'd purchase boatloads of artwork and then lend it out for others to enjoy. Damn philanthropists.
If you're Preston Haskell (very much one of the richest men in Jacksonville), you prefer to spend your greenbacks on art.
Collecting art for more than 40 years, both for himself and on behalf of The Haskell Company, Haskell has acquired quite an impressive collection of pieces from the abstract expressionism period, including works of some of the era's most important artists, like Karel Appel, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline and Morris Louis.
And as many great art lovers do, Haskell has lent out a large portion of his collection — formerly to the Princeton University Art Museum and currently to The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.
Running through April 22 at the Cummer's Mason Gallery, Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting is a selection of 27 paintings from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell and organized by the Princeton University Art Museum. (Haskell is a Princeton alumni.)
"As soon as we heard that there was going to be this show at Princeton and Preston was talking about the catalog and the other work that was going into it, I asked, ‘Are there any plans to travel this exhibition?'" says Holly Keris, chief curator at The Cummer. "And
he said, ‘You know, I haven't really thought about that.'"
So Keris kept up the conversation with Haskell until he agreed to bring Rothko to Richter to Jacksonville.
Kelly Baum, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Princeton University Art Museum and main author of the exhibition's accompanying catalog, is the one who identified the idea of mark-making as the theme tying the various pieces together.
"The easiest way to think about mark-making is [that it's] any act of applying paint on the canvas is a mark," says Keris. "There are many ways, obviously, that that can happen and it can manifest itself. But if you think about that, just the act of applying paint on the canvas as being one of the artist's marks."
Keris says that artists may make lively, gestural marks from which, when viewers stand before a piece of work, they get a sense of the artist's creation process. Then there's the other end of the spectrum that occurs when an artist might use an industrial spray gun or gravity to apply the paint — literally, leaving few or no marks on the canvas.
One way to understand the idea of mark-making is to consider abstractionist Jackson Pollock's style of drip painting — giving the viewer a very real sense of the marks that Pollock used to create his works.
"That idea of looking at these 27 pieces through that idea of mark-making and kind of tracing that trajectory from one extreme to another is really the main concept that Kelly put into the exhibition," Keris says. "It sounds like such an esoteric thing when you say, ‘Mark-making in an abstract expressionist painting.' But as soon as you think about it as the person being involved in that process, it does make it a little bit more tangible."
Developed in New York in the 1940s, abstract expressionism (also called Action painting) is a post-World War II art movement in American painting that brought artists like Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko to the forefront of the art world.
The heyday of abstract expressionism, which lasted from the 1950s to the 1990s, is usually distinguished by an artist's departure from traditions such as narrative and symbolism, instead exploring the literal act of applying paint to canvas.
The new Rothko to Richter exhibition is a welcome addition to the Cummer's offerings.
"One of the things that I really love most about the Cummer's permanent collection is that we've got 2,000 years of art history all under one roof, so the nature of our permanent collection is very diverse and very far-reaching," Keris says. "But we don't have a lot of direct correlations with abstract art in our permanent collection."
Rothko to Richter features several works by prominent abstract artists, including Joan
Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter and Rothko. It also features various public programs held in relation to the exhibit.
"On one end of the spectrum, you have works like the Frankenthaler or Richter, where it is clear that the paint has been applied with heavy gesture — thick paint, thin paint, staining, sweeping, smearing, building up and knocking down," Keris says of the collection. "In contrast, Jack Goldstein has gone to great lengths to eliminate all traces of his process from the finished works. Using a variety of tools, like commercial spray guns, the process behind his work is almost invisible to the naked eye."
Regardless of the technique practiced by the artists, Rothko to Richter offers local art lovers a chance to experience incredible works from one of the greatest movements in art history.