Abstraction well represented at new Hood exhibit

by Deborah Bernstein | 4/16/01 5:00am

American painting superstar Jackson Pollock said abstract paintings confront their viewers.

The current exhibition at Dartmouth's Hood Museum of Art, Abstraction at Mid-Century: Major Works from the Whitney Museum of American Art, is an ideal place to bring about these confrontations between viewer and image.

Abstraction at Mid-Century, on view at the Hood through June 17, features works from the Whitney -- including pieces by Pollock, Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning and numerous others -- and is enhanced by works of Mark Rothko, David Smith and Alexander Calder from the Hood's own collection.

The exhibition traces the evolution of American art from 1940 to 1970, a time when artists responded to new influences like the atrocities of World War II and the growth of psychoanalytic theory, and made American visual culture the leader of the international art world for the first time.

Artists from this period produced numerous styles of abstract imagery and sculptural forms, but all shared the belief that art should express the universal truths generated by profound personal experiences.

Modernism and abstraction, according to Hood Curator Kathy Hart was about "breaking down a lot of the expectations about what art should be."

Thus, the works on view at the Hood range in style from loose, gestural brushstrokes of monumental size to broad washes of color on unprimed canvases to lyrical sculptures constructed of metal.

Filling the museum's second floor galleries, Abstraction at Mid-Century's works are loosely grouped by theme, including rooms of works influenced by European Surrealists, works on paper and works dominated by a gestural painting style.

The painting "Green Form" by William Baziotes and a Calder mobile "Sea Scape" are two examples of works found in the Friends Gallery, given over to pieces influenced by the European Surrealists.

The two creations -- although one is a painting and the other a mobile sculpture -- vividly demonstrate the bright colors, biomorphic shapes and otherworldly landscapes Surrealism invoked.

Also in the Friends Gallery are four pieces by Mark Rothko and Pollock that dialogue nicely with those from in the Hood's collection.

Two earlier works by Rothko, "Agitation of the Archaic" and "Entombment, I," show the artist's interest in automatic drawing, calligraphic line and Surrealist shapes before the later domination of his large scale Abstract Expressionist works.

These two paintings are hung so that it is easy for a viewer to study them and then refer back to the Hood's Rothko -- a more recognizable Color Field work called Orange and Lilac over Ivory -- hanging in the Lathrop Gallery.

The two Pollock works are not his signature drip paintings. This style of work could be the one thing missing from the exhibition's survey of American abstraction.

Instead, these figurative drawings show Pollock's interest in Mexican murals like those found in Baker Library by Jose Clement Orozco.

In other galleries interconnections continue. Helen Frankenthaler's "Arden" is hung next to her one-time husband Robert Motherwell's "Afternoon in Barcelona."

Viewers can contrast Frankenthaler's technique of staining the canvas with pastel colors to Motherwell's monolithic black brushstrokes reacting to the Spanish Civil War.

David Smith's "Cockfight-Variation" steel sculpture is hung next to works on paper that show his interest in line and primal forms was evident in both sculpted and painted work.

A gallery centering on gestural works is one where the spirit and sense of these artists is particularly strong.

Works like Willem de Kooning's "Woman Accabonac" and Franz Kline's "Dahlia" feature the large, expansive brushstrokes that many people associate with the period. These works allow a viewer to picture how the artist could have worked physically and what arc their body and brush took in creating the images.

Hanging nearby are the more lyrical Abstract Expressionist works of Phillip Guston and the Hood's Esteban Vincente piece "The Yellow World," both of which feature meditations on colors and heavy impasto.

Also represented is Lee Krasner -- Mrs. Jackson Pollock -- whose own piece, "The Guardian," perhaps benefits from the lack of a ready comparison to a Pollock drip painting.

Without such a work overshadowing it, Krasner's own gestural style and choice of color and size is able to shine.

The Hood will also be showing the 2000 film "Pollock" on May 26 in conjunction with the show, so Krasner's importance to Pollock's career and art in general will get its due cinematically as well as visually.

In addition to the Hood's pieces, also enriching the traveling collection are some pieces not shown outside the Whitney but loaned to the Hood due to the fact that the museum's director, Maxwell Anderson, is a 1977 Dartmouth graduate.

Entering the exhibition, viewers are quickly greeted by such a work -- Jasper John's huge "Studio."

The huge canvas covers an entire wall, and in addition to the painterly sunbursts and gestures, there are signature John collage elements, like an imprint of his studio door and painted beer cans that hang down the side of the work.

Finally, the originality and boldness of these works are further underscored when one leaves the exhibition and sees the galleries with the Hood's permanent collection of 18th and 19th century American masterpieces.

These artists were responding to new American and international trends and the way they chose to express life at mid-century remains uniquely theirs to this day.

Deborah Bernstein is also a Hood Museum of Art senior intern in Public Relations.