The show Abstract Expressionist New York sprawls across three floors of the New York City MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). The museum’s fourth floor, which normally showcases a broad spectrum of the permanent collection, has been given over completely to the show, the first time an entire floor has been dedicated to one theme since the new museum building opened in 2004.
The fourth-floor exhibit is subtitled “The Big Picture,” which has at least two meanings. One is that the exhibit presents an overview, a big-picture view, of the abstract-expressionist movement. Another is that many of the pieces on display are, literally, pictures that are very big.
“The Big Picture” consists mostly of these huge paintings, but also some sculpture, photography, and drawing. Because the pieces are so large, there are fewer of them than you might expect. That makes it possible to see the entire fourth-floor exhibit comfortably in a single visit, despite its sprawling size, at least if you go through it fairly quickly.
Everything in the show is drawn from the museum’s own holdings. There are many famous pieces, which anyone familiar with the museum or with art history will immediately recognize, but there are also many pieces which are far less familiar. I used to go to the MoMa (in the old building) often as a teenager with a student pass, so I’m pretty familiar with the most-commonly displayed artworks from the permanent collection, and I saw many paintings in “The Big Picture” that I had never seen before.
There were also pieces that I don’t normally associate with abstract expressionism. For example, in the first room was Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans from 1962, a piece which is actually considered anti-abstract expressionist. Presumably it was there to show the legacy of the abstract expressionists as it affected later artists who either extended or rebelled against the earlier abstract-expressionist work.
The abstract expressionists, who were active in the post-war era of the 1940s and 50s, were themselves rebelling against their own artistic forefathers, the early-20th century artists such as Picasso and Matisse.
Abstract expressionism was a small movement, all taking place in New York City. It was so small that the artists all knew each other. They were united by a shared desire to do something new and a belief that by creating new types of art, they could actually help the world make a new start after the horrors of WW II.
Beyond this shared belief in a new beginning, they didn’t have much in common as far as style. Jackson Pollock, with his splatters of paint, Mark Rothko, with his bands of color, Barnett Newman with his stripes, and Willem de Kooning, with his grotesque portraits of women, all produced work that was very different from each other.
Looking back at that era now, it’s hard to imagine how obscure and outside the mainstream an interest in contemporary art used to be. It was the abstract expressionists themselves, striving to put their work on the map, who set the changes in motion that led to modern art becoming as popular as it is today. The NY MoMA, which was in its infancy in the abstract expressionist era, owes them a big debt. The reverse is true as well, as it was the MoMA which helped bring the abstract-expressionist artists to the attention of the world.
Abstract Expressionist New York runs through April 25, 2011.
Video: From the Curator: About the Exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York featuring Ann Temkin, Chief Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture
Ab Ex NY: Rethinking the Display of the Permanent Collection by Paulina Pobocha, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture