Cummer Art: Rothko to Richter

Joan and Preston Haskell, longtime Jacksonville arts patrons, have generously loaned 27 paintings from their private collection to the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell. The exhibition is curated by Kelly Baum, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, and will be on display at the Cummer through April 22.

Spanning the years 1952 to 1990, this exhibit includes twenty-seven paintings by twenty-three different artists from one of the most fertile periods in the history of abstract painting.

Although more than a century has passed since abstraction found its way into Western art, it has been continuously reexamined and reinvented since that time. It is this lack of a fixed set of parameters that sometimes poses a challenge for its viewers. Abstract art stretches us to reach beyond what is comfortable or familiar in the visible world. As a result, “seeing differently allows us to think, and ultimately to know, differently,” says Baum.

Haskell agrees and refers to a quote made famous by the most widely represented artist in the collection, Frank Stella: “What you see is what you see.” Of course, the unspoken meaning here goes much deeper than what appears to be communicated on the surface. What you see encompasses what you are able to see, care to see, can see, and are willing to see. It is more about “what is in their hearts and minds as opposed to what they see with their eyes,” says Haskell.

For many of these artists, coming of age immediately following World War II, abstraction arose as a way for them to say to the world what they felt it needed to hear at the time. “When the world is not the same, you can’t paint the same way anymore,” says Haskell. Artists needed to find a “universal language that spoke to the human condition at large.” Of course, just what those post-war imperatives of Abstraction included was something that was highly debated and disagreed upon. The artists featured in Rothko to Richter all played pivotal roles in this debate, as each sought to redefine the rules of Abstraction to match the rapidly evolving cultural milieu of the period. For them, the disagreement centered largely on process and technique, or what Baum refers to as mark-making, “the painterly handwriting through which we can deconstruct the work.” She expands on this idea by defining the ‘mark’ in mark-making as “a product as well as a process–more specifically, it is an end that cannot be separated from its means. Marks are also structural–as well as vocal–components of any given painting. Not only do they reveal a great deal about a painting’s meaning, they also shape the meaning, give it form and substance, for the viewer.”

In other words, it is difficult to understand what an abstract painting means without first understanding how it is made, and this exhibit has been displayed in such a way that illustrates the distinctiveness and importance of artists’ mark-making by directing our focus through a lens of each artist’s unique way of applying paint to canvas.

When the glass doors to the exhibit slide open, one immediately comes face-to-face with a single painting, purposely chosen for this position. It is German-born painter Hans Hofmann’s Composition #3 (1952). The mark-making in Hofmann’s work is perhaps the most visible of any other work in the room, as he applied paint with his fingers, tips of brushes, and even spatulas. Every mark, every single interaction he had with the painting, is highly visible to the viewer. The wall at the end of the exhibit is in direct contrast to this beginning, with two Goldstein pieces hanging side by side against the corresponding back walls. Goldstein’s works seem to be flirting with the abstraction that Hofmann employed, as his marks have virtually been erased and the resulting surface is nearly photographic in its appearance. But Goldstein has, in these two pieces, abstracted recognizable motifs through his use of alteration and cropping.

Although these contrasting styles may initially suggest a sort of structure to the exhibit, this not the case. The collection, as with the Abstract movement in general, “is a story characterized by continuities as well as discontinuities, departures as well as repetitions,” says Baum. This disparity is exemplified by the two most recent works featured: Sam Francis’s Around Us Day and Night (1989) and Joan Mitchell’s Champs (1990). Interestingly, “both of these epitomize much earlier moments, reflecting styles and techniques associated with the 1950s. For this reason, their paintings appear out of the expected aesthetic and chronological order,” notes Baum. “As seen through the perspective of the Haskell Collection, painting does not progress in a linear fashion from one movement to its successor, concluding triumphantly at a particular moment in time; instead, it advances, falters, invents, borrows, revisits, breaks, resumes, and changes.”

As we move further away from the period in which these works were created, it is important that we continue to find ways to filter, engage, and understand them. While the parameters of Abstraction may be difficult to pinpoint, the emotion that fueled each piece is clear. Through mark-making, each artist painted their hearts and souls onto the canvas, and in doing so, notes Haskell, they are able to “stimulate and energize the human mind and spirit.”

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is located at 829 Riverside Ave, Jacksonville. For exhibition hours, visit www.cummermuseum.org

About Holly Hiday

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