Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture – Museum of Modern Art, MoMA






The Museum of Modern Art



Abstract Expressionist New York
The Big Picture
October 3, 2010 – April 25, 2011





Abstract Expressionist New York Celebrates the Achievements of a Generation That Catapulted New York City to the Center of the International Art World Sixty Years Ago

Beginning in the 1940s, a group of artists began to meet regularly, eventually forming the Club in a barebones space on 8th Street in Greenwich Village, where they discussed and debated art and other subjects of the day, ranging from modern music and Eastern philosophy to the relationship between art and poetry. Among the founding members was sculptor Philip Pavia, who in 1949 famously declared, “The first half of the century belonged to Paris. The next half century will be ours.”


Abstract Expressionist New York



Installation view of Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture.
Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Photo: Jason Mandella.
© The Museum of Modern Art.





Organized in a loose chronology, intermittently interrupted by monographic galleries that allow for the in-depth study of an individual artist’s practice, the installation opens with a selection of paintings and drawings that attest to the acutely self-conscious sense of new beginnings present in the work of individuals such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, they and their peers—not yet a cohesive group—created imagery that evoked primitive man or ancient myth, and conjured an aquatic or geological pre-human world.

Upon entering the galleries, visitors are greeted by Jackson Pollock’s The She-Wolf (1943), which was featured in the artist’s first solo exhibition, in 1943, and was the first work by Pollock to enter a museum collection when MoMA acquired it the following year. Made before Pollock developed his signature “drip” style, the canvas shows that a free-form abstraction and an unfettered play of materials were already parts of his process. Also on view is Mark Rothko’s Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944), a canvas picturing two creatures floating between sea and sky, surrounded by arabesques, spirals, and stripes that betrays the influence of Surrealism on Rothko’s early work.

A monographic gallery devoted to the work of Barnett Newman includes Onement, I (1952), which the artist later identified as his breakthrough painting. Modest in size, it consists of a monochromatic background divided in half by a vertical band, or “zip” as the artist later called it. Every successive painting by Newman, as seen in the seven works in this gallery, features this particular compositional motif, although their formal and emotional differences are apparent. The scale and proportions of the paintings, as well as their palette and brushwork, vary from work to work, as do the number of zips and their location in the field of color. At the other end of the spectrum from this relatively small canvas is Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51), an 18-foot-wide, vibrant red expanse that was Newman’s largest painting at the time of its creation.


Abstract Expressionist New York



Installation view of Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture.
Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Photo: Jason Mandella.
© The Museum of Modern Art.





The distinctive materials, techniques, and approaches developed and practiced by the Abstract Expressionists can be seen in a number of other works from the late 1940s and early 1950s. For Painting (1948), Willem de Kooning used oil and enamel sign paint to create a densely packed painting in which the paint drips, bleeds, congeals, or dissolves into delicate streaks. Lee Krasner’s Untitled (1949) shows that she applied thick paint—sometimes directly from the tube—in rhythmic and repetitive strokes, giving equal attention to every inch of the canvas and creating an allover composition. Bradley Walker Tomlin, in Number 20 (1949), and Adolph Gottlieb, in Man Looking at Woman (1949), distributed imagery evoking the alphabet and hieroglyphics evenly across their canvases.

A large gallery focusing on the work of Jackson Pollock includes Full Fathom Five (1947), one of earliest “drip” paintings, and Number 1A, 1948 (1948), the first drip painting to enter MoMA’s collection (in 1950). For One: Number 31, 1950 (1950), a masterpiece of the drip technique and one of Pollock’s largest paintings (8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″ [269.5 x 530.8 cm]), the artist laid the canvas on the floor of his studio and poured, dribbled, and flicked enamel paint onto the surface, sometimes straight from the can, or with sticks and stiffened brushes. The density of interlacing liquid threads of paint is balanced and offset by puddles of muted colors and by allover spattering.

Eight paintings made by Mark Rothko over a 14-year period are presented in a single gallery. The earliest examples from 1948, such as No. 1 (Untitled) , feature variously sized abstract forms caught mid-motion as they shift on the canvas. Beginning in 1950, Rothko’s “classic” style forms as the artist creates a composition from horizontal planes of thinly layered paint and highly modulated color, simplifying the compositional structure of his paintings and arriving at his signature style. No. 10 (1950) is divided horizontally into three dominant planes of blue, yellow, and white that softly and subtly bleed into one another. Acquired by MoMA in 1952, it was the first Rothko to enter the Museum’s collection, and was considered so radical that a trustee of the Museum resigned in protest.


Abstract Expressionist New York



Installation view of Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture.
Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Photo: Jason Mandella.
© The Museum of Modern Art.

Abstract Expressionist New York



Installation view of Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture.
Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Photo: Jason Mandella.
© The Museum of Modern Art.

Abstract Expressionist New York



Installation view of Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture.
Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Photo: Jason Mandella.
© The Museum of Modern Art.





MoMA’s practice of making in-depth acquisitions of work by artists that its curators judged to be of greatest importance was complemented by acquisitions of smaller numbers of works by other artist who played roles too significant to be forgotten. The Big Picture includes paintings and sculptures by more than 20 artists.

There is a gallery devoted to a selection of photographs made by individuals who used a camera to explore kindred artistic concerns—often resulting in work with striking stylistic similarities. Aaron Siskind may be the photographer most closely associated with Abstract Expressionism, and numerous works of his on display suggest the depth of this connection. Also featured in this installation is work by Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, Minor White, and others, revealing the variety of ways in which the sensibility or structure of paintings from this period manifested itself photographically.

The exhibition includes some 30 items from the MoMA Archives, documenting the relation of the Museum to Abstract Expressionism. Materials represent the institution’s influential series of “Americans” exhibitions, organized by Dorothy C. Miller, which included several Abstract Expressionist artists in four of its iterations. In addition, documentation regarding the internationally circulating New American Painting show (also organized by Miller) is presented. This important exhibition travelled to eight European cities in 1958-59 and propelled the homegrown Abstract Expressionist movement onto the international art scene. A third section includes photographs of artists and their own statements and letters. Highlights include: exhibition catalogues, installation photographs, newsclippings, and ephemera; photographs of artists in the studio with their artworks; a letter from Robert Motherwell to Miller describing the four themes of his art (automatic means, pure abstractions, political or a kind of “disasters” series, and intimate pictures), a letter from Ad Reinhardt to Miller recommending a different installation of his paintings, and a statement by Grace Hartigan identifying her subject as the “vulgar and vital in American life, and the possibilities of its transcendence into the beautiful.”


  • Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture
    The Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Painting and Sculpture Galleries, fourth floor

    -> link

  • Abstract Expressionist New York: Ideas Not Theories: Artists and The Club, 1942-1962
    The Paul J. Sachs Drawings Galleries, third floor

    -> link

  • Abstract Expressionist New York: Rock Paper Scissors
    The Paul J. Sachs Prints and Illustrated Books Galleries, second floor

    -> link







Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
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~ by Stampfli & Turci on December 12, 2010.

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