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Permanent Abstraction

FWMoA's current public selection

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


Across the Midwest, there is a bias toward the representational. Among our collectors, our artists, and our arts institutions, abstraction — especially non-representation — is rarely highlighted. Because of this, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art's current set of exhibitions comes as a pleasant surprise, since it includes both "Soft Focus: Atmospheric Abstraction in Modern Painting" and "The Myth of the Avant Garde: American Styles at the End of the Century," both of which are examples of their permanent collection. These exhibitions are primarily prints and painting, as is the FWMoA's collection in general, and primarily focuses on pieces from the last two decades of the 20th century.

Within "The Myth of the Avant Garde," the viewer will find a succession of individual styles within a postmodern frame, where there are no constructs for what is "correct" art, or art which is morally or aesthetically superior. This was the death knell to the nearly seventy year trend within the international art world of the avant garde, which like an angst ridden teenager, would radically switch from mood to mood throughout that time- from Dada, to Surrealism, then Abstract Expressionism, etc. This current of styles replaced themselves over and over until reaching the "peak" with high minimalism, which is — depending on what you are reading and who you are following — the peak of Western aesthetics before the free-fall of Postmodernism. Postmodernism is seen in both positive and negative lights, where it can be seen as either a lack of moral integrity/hierarchy within aesthetics, or an incredible cross-pollination of ideas.

However, as the exhibitions title alludes, the concept of the hierarchical avant garde in the early 20th century was a historical construction built out of certain power structures which dominated the art world at that time. Many of the avant garde movements of the 20th century were actually outcroppings of central ideas which spawned modern art, which either expressed themselves quickly (Dada and Surrealism) and others which laid dormant for a few decades. Interestingly, many of these avant garde styles can find an ancestry in Marcel Duchamp's work, and others who brought modernism to the New World in the 1913 Armory Show.

This overlapping frothy nature of the art world can be seen in the works of Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, John Newman, Robert Rauschenberg within this exhibition. Rauschenberg particularly, who, with Jasper Johns, studied Duchamp's work, produced incredibly varied work throughout his career, and from the beginning, incorporated a great number of "avant gard styles" in his work. It was in this time of the late 50's through the mid-seventies when the amount of diversity within the international art world (which had become robust with the post-war boom) that the collapse of the mythical history of the avant garde was apparent.

While the critics, philosophers, and certain segments of the art world are still arguing as to what this means for the progression of aesthetics and the way that we understand and make art, the avant garde has little importance outside of it being an art historical construct which is helpful in grouping artists together into recognizable patterns. And so the artists within "The Myth of the Avant Garde" are a great grouping of artists who inherited the "freedom from the tyranny of Academic Art,” and see that struggle as a generational throwback, something which was hard to find in then (since the art schools had changed so much since the rule of the Academie) and is now occluded even more so, or as "The Myth"'s curatorial statement asserts, The very term, Modernism, connoted imperialism, chauvinism, and, to a considerable degree, aesthetic intolerance. The idea that the big lugs of the 20th Century – Picasso, Braque, deKooning, and Pollock – had pushed the envelope as the creators of the mythic “avant garde” began to sound, suspiciously, as clever self-promotion." This once new era of artists began a truly self-reflexive practice which attempted to call out the hypocrisy which had been adopted into modernism as being the exact opposite of the academy.

Coupled with this interrogation of modernism and postmodernism is "Soft Focus," an exhibition highlighting the Washington Color School, a group of artists who inhabited the middle ground between the two aforementioned aesthetic and conceptual modes. The Washington Color School is a core group of artists, most famously Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Thomas Downing, but is ultimately the cousin of abstract expressionism, as most of their work is both purely abstract and non-objective in nature, and working within the color field movement.

"Soft Focus" highlights this middle ground between the modernism of Minimalist, color field, and Abstract Expressionist schools, and the postmodern lack of regard for such distinctions by including artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Ron Bandy, who have never easily fit into a single school or thought. Their abstraction is, inherently, more ambiguous and concepts behind their work bleed too. Frankenthaler specifically, is known for complete non-objective images which are given titles with specific references to locations, giving her work an almost irrational twitch between an image and an action/idea. It is in this dual ornamental and conceptual existence that the work in "Soft Focus", in some ways, bridging the gaps among most critical interpretations among 20th century schools.

Through both "The Myth" and "Soft Focus," FWMoA shows both the strength of its permanent collection and the need to appreciate and understand the incredibly important relationship between abstraction and the core concepts of the modern and contemporary art history.

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