At Vassar: “Pictures of Nothing” Is Really Something
By Robert Burke Warren
Mary-Kay Lombino, curator for the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, is confident that visitors to the acclaimed museum are ready for Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art from the Permanent Collection. The show runs from July 12 to September 8, and features nine decades of abstract art, spanning the years 1923 to 2011. “We’re almost one hundred years into the development of abstract art,” Lombino says. “That’s usually the time it takes for the public to appreciate a movement.” The exhibit, which features more than 40 pieces, runs from the whimsical to the opaque to the challenging, and, as with most non-representational art, the canvases, sculptures, and photos call for some imaginative effort on behalf of the viewer. But attendees will find that effort generously rewarded by the mastery of Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Franz Kline (below right), Vassar alum Nancy Graves, and the father of the movement, Hans Hoffman. In addition to icons, Lombino, as is her wont, includes both outsider and obscure artists in the show, brightening the corners. The connecting thread is power through mystery. As T.S. Eliot said of poetry, the work communicates before it is understood. You’ll feel something, and it won’t be nostalgia.
You will, however, see — or rather, feel — history, but not the textbook variety. Pictures of Nothing offers unique echoes of a tempestuous, crucial century in Western culture, a developmental phase only just now coming into focus. These days, abstract art infiltrates fashion, advertising, music, architecture, the Internet, and more, so it’s easy to forget its fitful beginnings. For centuries art evoked landscapes, people, and events, yet here was this new movement, giving form to individual psyches, archetypes, or the simple vitality of color; scary, lusty, confounding, but also in accord with a culture simultaneously creating and destroying as never before. The abstract art at Vassar offers glimpses of a time when Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the combustible engine, mass communication, the atom bomb, and Freud and Jung were all new and freshly provocative. These changes emboldened the twentieth century artists in Pictures of Nothing; they looked deeper inside than any previous generation. As Lombino puts it: “Abstract art creates imagery that is independent from visual references in the world… Across various disciplines, representation wasn’t useful anymore.” The chutzpah necessary to vivify that starkly original imagery, regardless of public indifference (or worse) is exciting to behold. Indeed, the artists included in Pictures of Nothing worked regardless of the world’s initial shock and confusion over their work. Most of the pieces in the show were, in fact, misunderstood — or hated — and sometimes disregarded.
Lombino realizes a significant portion of the public still feel like they don’t “get” abstract art, so she’s endeavored to remedy that; in addition to hosting a gallery talk/informal walk-through on Thursday, July 18, at 4 p.m., she’s broken down the exhibit into three sections: Gesture, Pattern, and Geometry. Of the Gesture section, she says, “Most people think of gesture when they think of abstraction.” She indicates Joan Mitchell’s bracing “Lyric” from 1959 (at left), saying, “You can see the artist’s hand moving. It brings you back to that moment in the studio.” Of Mitchell, she says, “She was right up there with Pollock and Rothko.”
In the Pattern section, we find Frank Stella’s “Jasper’s Dilemma,” (right), two mazes of squares, one exuberantly colorful, the other measured grayscale, along with Josef Albers’ “Homage to the Square” (left). These selections offer a more cerebral approach, less wild and wooly than the gestural pieces, yet still eliciting new reactions to familiar colors and shapes. Spencertown, NY’s own Ellsworth Kelly (90 years young) lights up the Geometry section with his “Untitled” print from 1973 (at top), one of the exhibit’s examples of the “color-field” painting style. “‘Untitled’ represents Kelly’s concerns about the tension between the figure and the ground,” says Lombino.
The Pattern section, Lombino says, lets the viewer “get lost. It’s more systematic than gesture; it erases gesture.” Here, Roy Lichtenstein’s “Seascape” abuts Japanese outsider artist Hiroyuki Doi’s “Untitled” from 2002, a pairing to which some may object. Lombino doesn’t mind. “The art world tends to put too much emphasis on separating ‘the canon’ from self-taught people,” she says.
To the attendee who inevitably asks, “Why is this art?” or says “My kid could do that!” Lombino says, “Art need not be about being able to render something from the ‘real world.’ Abstract art creates something out of nothing; it’s creating, not copying. There’s a tension around the idea that if you can’t copy a tree or person, you’re not a good artist.” Needless to say, Lombino sees things differently. And she’s sure Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center patrons are more primed for the controversial than they think.
NOTE: On the exhibition’s final weekend, painter Thomas Nozkowski will deliver the lecture “Pictures of Something,” on Friday, September 6 at 5:30 p.m. in Taylor Hall, Room 203, of The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.
Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art from the Permanent Collection
Friday, July 12, through Sunday, September 8
124 Raymond Ave.
Admission is free and open to the public.
Tues-Sat: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sun: 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Main office: (845) 437-5237