Messy lives, messy art: Abstract Expressionism New York at AGO

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011. Filed under: Art
No. 5, No. 22, 1950, Mark Rothko.

No. 5, No. 22, 1950, Mark Rothko.

Tumultuous relationships, alcoholism, suicide.  For the Abstract Expressionists, messy lives made for messy art.  Sixty years later, their paintings still vibrate with the tragedy, passion and questing spirit that created them more than half a century ago.
Several days after attending a media preview at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I’m still thinking about the show.

Abstract Expressionist New York: Masterpieces from The Museum of Modern Art, New York, features over a hundred major works by the 20th-century artists who changed the course of art history forever.

Jackson Pollock (photo by Martha Holmes)

Jackson Pollock (photo by Martha Holmes)

The art of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Louise Bourgeois and others, defined an era (the 1950s) and was powerful enough to knock the focus of the international art world off Paris and firmly onto New York.
Highlights of the show include 13 works by Jackson Pollock including the signature Number 1A, 1948, eight of Mark Rothko’s spectacular color-field works, and Willem de Kooning’s snarling landmark Woman, I.

You don’t need to know much going into the show to appreciate it.  There’s a lot going on visually but clear, informative panels enlighten painlessly.  Even if you do “know a lot”, there are surprises.  Who knew that the “abstract” black ovals appearing in many of Motherwell’s paintings actually represent the severed bulls’ testicles displayed ceremoniously at Spanish bullfights?  I didn’t.

Why do these works strike such a chord with viewers sixty years later?  The anxieties we live with today–economic recession, war, fear for the planet, fear of each other–are very similar to what the Abstract Expressionists experienced.  In lives that spanned horrors like the civil war in Spain,  the Great Depression, world war, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and the Cold War, the Abstract Expressionists sought meaning in modern life.

This is what Toronto will be talking about this summer.  See the show, join the discussion!

The AGO is the sole Canadian venue to host Abstract Expressionist New York.  It will be up until September 4, 2011.

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