The Blanton’s “Expanding Abstraction: Pushing the Boundaries of Painting in the Americas, 1958–1983,” succeeds in a few areas. It pulls out a lot of abstract works from the Blanton’s collection, and gives them room to be seen at their best around their abstract peers.
Some of the choices are familiar and expected, (for example those from the museum’s James A. Michener Collection) however, a few surprises are in store, including loans made to round out the diverse range of artists working in abstraction after its heyday.
The labor behind the selection process is curiously palpable. One might sillily imagine Blanton Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Carter E. Foster, walking through storage while big art screens packed with paintings are drawn out to be met with an enthusiastic yes, or a more subtle nod no, like some sort of reality show judge. Although it should be noted that many of the works push back against painting and instead are abstract sculpture or feature three dimensional (even kinetic) elements.
Ultimately, those lucky to be chosen are arranged into six sections: “Emphatic Gestures”; “Strained Poured, Sprayed”; “Material Radicality”; “Between Painting and Sculpture”; “Opticality” and “Geometries.” While these trends have a loose chronological significance, the artworks’ dates bounce around a bit. The Blanton’s Latin American collection is well regarded, so including multiple examples from it, was another place where the show shines.
Overall a worthy undertaking, the exhibition makes sense out of rather disparate holdings, highlighting a sliver of the history of abstract art in novel ways. Some singling out for commentary is of course in order.
Best placement goes to Alice Baber’s “Lavender High” (1968) a kaleidoscopic explosion of colorful translucent egg forms with a slow-moving, lava-lampy feel. The dominant lavender “X’ shape aligns with the directional path of the visitor, pulling them from one gallery to the next — from Ab-Ex realm to Color Field.
Small but mighty, Alma Thomas’ “Jonquils” (1973) features her trademark micro-units of color, here in brilliant yellow. As the title suggests, Thomas studies patterns in nature: leaf, petal, flower and stalk. Thomas’ paintings are universally likeable.
Not a Match
A respected member of the New York School, Grace Hartigan is one of a number of women represented in the exhibition, but “Mountain Woman” (1964) was less “emphatic gesture” and more wandering in the wilderness or at least muddled in execution.
Best Use of Relief
José Antonio Fernández-Muro’s work, “Al gran pueblo argentino… [To the Great Argentine Nation…]” (1964) centers around a target-like image of a manhole cover made of foil. The artist process involves both embossing and rubbing to portray cultural markers of the streets.
Julio Le Parc’s acrylic on canvas “Untitled” (circa 1972) is an Op Art spectacular dazzling the naked eye, but changing, perhaps even improving, when photographed. Op Art continues to force us to question our own visual perception.
Honorable Mention for the sprayed acrylic on canvas by Kenneth Showell, “Besped” (1967) in front of which much posing occurs.
It took guts to put Jaime Davidovich’s, “Tape Project, Akron Art Institute” (1976) in the show. Implementing a different type of gesture, the repeated application of clear tape not only capitalizes on non-traditional materials and unusual surface qualities, but also takes on a performative aspect. So translucent, its press images deceptively look like a white wall.
Plays Well with Others
George Sugarman’s 19 brightly colored sculptures, “Two in One” (1966) was in the Blanton’s upstairs galleries for a long time and is a reliable addition to any abstract show as it acts in a collaborative role, creating a dynamic visual play with flat(ter) work.
I love everything about this oil on canvas by Manuel Hernández Gómez’s, “Formas [Forms]” (1969) — color, composition, size, shapes, you name it.
“Expanding Abstraction: Pushing the Boundaries of Painting in the Americas, 1958–1983,” is on view through January 10, 2021. blantonmuseum.org