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Modernism Points the Way

by Sura Wood
Sunday Jun 15, 2014

"Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection," a new exhibition that opened last weekend at the de Young Museum, arrives on the heels of another big modern art show now at the San Jose Museum of Art. This one, though, consisting of 46 paintings and a few sculptures (and a pair of Joseph Cornell's boxes) by 28 artists, is selective, substantially smaller, and emphasizes an earlier period of postwar American art, particularly the 1960s and through the early 1980s. It focuses on Abstract Expressionism and the period that followed it, with works by the likes of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Frank Stella.

As is the case with San Jose's show, "Modernism" mirrors the idiosyncratic, albeit cultivated tastes of the collectors. While it may be true that following the devastation of WWII and the incomprehensible barbarity of the Holocaust, artists were confronted with existential questions regarding the value of art and how to express themselves in a world that had lost its innocence, some of the work that came out of the era can be cerebral and esoteric in ways that don't elicit rapturous enthusiasm. Still, the show has individual pieces to recommend it. Here are some highlights.

Hans Hofmann's operatically exuberant "Autumn Gold" (1957), on display in the first gallery, was the Meyerhoffs' inaugural acquisition, and is a good place to start for visitors, too. Rectangles in tangerine, chartreuse and avocado, made vivid with luscious, nearly three-dimensional slabs of thick paint, vie for attention. Hofmann, who's considered a catalyst for Abstract Expressionism -- he emigrated from Germany via Paris in 1934 -- clearly relished texture, gobs of impasto, the interaction of saturated colors, and how, in concert, they act on the eye. A show of his early works will be at BAM in July.

When Philip Guston turned from Abstract Expressionism to the cartooning style he stuck with for a decade, colleagues rejected him. Though the move may have tanked his career, it paved the way for the vernacular art in vogue among a younger generation of artists. Against the bubblegum-pink background of "Courtroom" (1970), someone in red-and-black-striped pants, perhaps the artist, has landed head-first in a matching red trashcan, his legs sticking straight up, spread-eagle, with black clown shoes on each foot. Nearby, a hooded Ku Klux Klansman in a white, blood-stained sheet holds a cigar in a blood-soaked hand. From stage right, an arm with red-gloved fingers points to the action, a bit of vaudeville addressing a serious subject. Guston, ne Goldstein, a committed lefty and the son of persecuted Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, bottled up a traumatic past -- his father hung himself, his brother had his legs crushed in an accident -- and popped out of his britches, as it were, with playfulness, lacerating humor, and no shortage of technique.

Embarked on while he was recovering from a heart attack and painted over a decade from 1958-66, Barnett Newman's "The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani," a series of Minimalist, mostly uniformly-sized six-by-five-foot, neutral canvases with bands of black with grey shadings in varying widths, occupies its own meditative space. The assembly of 14 stations and a coda has the austerity of a convocation gathered for prayers in the serenity of a monastery. Frustrated and despairing that he wasn't receiving the recognition he deserved, Newman watched as peers like Jackson Pollock zoomed by him on their way to the top, a source of anguish he may or may not have equated with the suffering of Christ. Jesus' unanswered question from the cross, why did you forsake me, was the purported subject of the series. Regarded as the apex of his career, the opus secured Newman's place in the pantheon. He discusses the work in a film screened in the museum's media room.

Painter, sculptor, printmaker and filmmaker Nancy Graves is the real find of the show. An expressive colorist and world traveler interested in nature and anthropology, Graves came on the New York scene impressing with a trio of life-size camels; anatomically correct, slightly abstracted, and made out of burlap, wax, fiberglass, and animal hide, they were worthy of a Natural History diorama. An iconoclast, she not only did not subscribe to orthodoxies or succumb to the demands of popular taste, she often violated them. Those choices and her gender limited a career that should have been bigger. In "Agualine" (1980), it's as if a bunch of balloons in the turquoise, fuchsia and pale yellows of the South of France (where she spent time) burst into shreds and landed on the canvas. Amidst the fluid movement reminiscent of Calder, whom Graves admired and whose sculptures she collected, rust-colored imagery of prehistoric animal vertebrae, a reference to cave painting, snakes across the lower third of the painting.

Jasper Johns often leaves me cold, but I liked "Perilous Night" (1982), an intricate, fascinating collaged piece, where he looks over his shoulder at art history, including his own, sculpture, construction, music and time. Informed by the Resurrection panel of Matthias Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-16) and named for John Cage's 1944 composition for prepared piano, the work integrates bizarro and gruesome puzzle pieces into a montage that shouldn't fit together, but does. Silkscreened pages from Cage's "score" lay underneath three decaying forearms cast in wax from a live model. Painted with patterns and dripping blood in primary colors, they hang from hooks across the top right of the canvas just above a charcoal-gray relief that looks as if it had been scrawled in finger paints by a youngster with aggressive technique. You could spend hours deciphering it and still have difficulty tearing yourself away.

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