Post from The Grey Art Gallery Blog, The Grey Area, Written by DAH Student Carolyn Keogh

6 Mar

Visiting American Vanguards at the Neuberger Museum of Art

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John Graham, Tabletop Still Life with Bird, 1929. Oil on canvas, 32 in. x 39 in. Collection of Tommy and Gill Lipuma, New York

Dear readers, I have a sincere request: Please support your local university art museums! If sometimes you forget to visit these wonderful places, American Vanguards, currently on view at Purchase College’s Neuberger Museum of Art, serves as a pleasant reminder as to why these important art institutions should not be neglected.

During a recent trip to Westchester, I made a pit-stop in Purchase to see the show and was delighted by the display of abstract art from the 1930’s and ’40s. The exhibition is organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art (located on the campus of Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts) and curated by William C. Agee, Irving Sandler, and Karen Wilkin. American Vanguards is on view through April 29 (when it travels to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas) and showcases around 80 works, providing insight into the artistic production of John Graham, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and other important abstractionists of the period.

The exhibition makes clear John Graham’s crucial importance in paving the way for abstraction in America. Born in Kiev, Graham fled the Bolshevik Revolution, moving to the U.S., changing his name, and reinventing himself as an artist and tastemaker. Graham was an early advocate for Davis and de Kooning, even including paintings by the latter with works by Picasso and Matisse in an exhibition he organized for the McMillen Gallery in 1942. I found it humorous to discover that de Kooning, his name still unknown, was included in the catalogue of this show as “William Kooning.” American Vanguards provides a fascinating contrast to the MoMA’s recent de Kooning retrospective—examining a period in which many of today’s greats were still flying below the radar.

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John Graham, The White Pipe, 1930. Oil on canvas mounted on board, 12 1/4 in. x 17 in. Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection. Gift of Dorothy Paris. 1961.56

A work from the Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection, a colorful still-life by John Graham, telegraphs the essence of this period. In The White Pipe (1930), Graham places a biomorphic shape on a black surface, executing the contours with thickly applied daubs of white paint. Graham punctuates the gray-blue background with black and white lines, creating a striking graphic effect. A vibrant red rectangle sets the top right corner aglow. American Vanguards successfully captures a period before artists began working in pure abstraction, when they were producing planar still-lifes in rich reds, vibrant yellows and blues, and geometric, Picasso-like portraits.

Although the show focuses mainly on works by Graham, Davis, Gorky, and de Kooning—who referred to themselves as “The Four Musketeers”—ample attention is paid to other emerging artists of the time, such as Jackson Pollock and Marsden Hartley. One entire gallery is dedicated to the painting and sculpture of David Smith—focusing on an interesting tie between the two media during this period. I was thrilled to see Lee Krasner represented by two works dating from 1940 and 1943, inserting her in the narrative of emerging Abstract Expressionism, which is often touted as a “boys club.”

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John Graham, Poussin m’instruit (Poussin Teaches Me), 1944. Oil on panel, 60 in. x 48 in. Anthony F. Bultman IV and Ellis J. Bultman

The exhibition demonstrates how Graham tied disparate artists together and also how his own tastes and preferences changed. While he advocated for artists such as de Kooning and Davis in the 1930s and early ’40s, by the end of World War II, he was dismissing abstract art and advocating a return to figural painting. One of my favorite works in the show was a large painting by Graham, Poussin m’instruit (Poussin Teaches Me, 1944), depicting two nude men in vibrant magentas and fleshy pinks. After viewing wall after wall covered with largely abstract works, my attention was grabbed by this painting. Graham executes the two men’s musculature with quasi-scientific precision, making them look flayed—a radical shift from his earlier abstracted tableaus.

Before his death in 1961, Graham referred to Picasso as a “charlatan,” showing how drastically his artistic opinions had changed over the course of thirty years. But despite Graham’s radically shifting views, American Vanguards establishes him as an important and fascinating figure in the progression of early American abstractionism.

— Written by Carolyn F. Keogh, NYU CAS ’12 and Undergraduate Intern, Grey Art Gallery

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One Response to “Post from The Grey Art Gallery Blog, The Grey Area, Written by DAH Student Carolyn Keogh”

  1. Lucy Freeman Sandler, Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of Art History, emer., New York University 04/01/2012 at 6:06 pm #

    When Irving Sandler was on the NYU faculty in the 1960s the John Graham painting now owned by the Grey Art Gallery hung in his office. As one of the curators of the exhibition, he was delighted to see Carolyn Keogh’s review of American Vanguards, and he also recommends the catalogue published by Yale University Press.

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