” Change the world “
On display until May 2 in the Ringling Searing Galleries, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota; 941-359-5700; ringling.org
The apocalypse is still a dark prophecy. In the depths of WWII, it looked like headline news. This war almost shattered human civilization. After the war, broken people had to pick up the pieces. Artists were no exception.
In America, many visual artists have rejected the representation. As they saw, the world had been taken to hell. Perspective, form and all that jazz wasn’t enough anymore. That everything had to disappear. To remake their world, they needed a radical new start.
The radical result was a wave of non-figurative art. New York City was the epicenter of this post-war tsunami. This wave quickly crossed the world. Sarasota was no exception.
Abstract art formed the core of the nascent collection of modern and contemporary art at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. “Remaking the World” builds on this heritage. Curated by Ola Wlusek, this exhibition features over 20 abstract pieces from The Ringling’s permanent collection.
The post-WWII period is at the center of our concerns, although it is not a narrow focus. Abstract Expressionists receive all the respect due to them. You’ll see the work of many of the usual suspects, including Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, David Budd, and Robert Motherwell. Other non-figurative artists have colored outside of the abstract expressionist lines. You will also see their work.
Here is a sample of what you will see.
Carlos Alfonzo was born in Cuba. His early work combines a realistic method with a propaganda message. Under Castro’s control, he had no other choice. That changed after Alfonzo fled to Miami during Mariel’s boat lift. His uncensored art was individualistic, non-figurative, dense, and decidedly unorthodox. Abstract, yes. Expressionist, no. “Gulfstream” (1988) is an example. A dense, circular composition – a tangle of shapes, crammed into a rectangular frame. Swirls of cold blue, sprinkled with warm colors. But no painterly brushstrokes. The paint looks structural – like a crazy roller coaster, welded together by a giant metal spider on LSD. The article is far from propaganda, but not meaningless. In fact, there is a double meaning. The Gulf Stream is a current in the ocean. By obvious implication, this is also the current of Cuban refugees. Without hitting the nail on the head, Alfonzo talks about his desperate race for freedom.
Alfonzo’s work alludes to structure. Kay Sage’s “Another Gray Day” (1957) is not a clue. It’s a structure, okay. An irregular trellis, decorated with geometric shapes. By working from this painting, you can build a 3D model of the object. What is it exactly ? Hard to say – in fact, impossible. It is an architectural form, but without reference. There is no horizon line or human figure to give you an idea of the scale. The object could be a towering building – or a matchstick sculpture on Sage’s kitchen table. Your mind is left with a riddle, but no answer. Sage was a surrealist, of course. Exactly.
Grace Hartigan’s “Holidays” (1973) is a colorful and luminous composition. It’s a pretty painting, but not entirely non-figurative. You see the black contoured shapes of a hammer, butterflies, scissors, hearts and flowers. Visual logic owes multiple debts to cubism, stained glass windows and shop windows. It’s a happy painting, at least on the surface. But – according to some sources – the artist’s partner was fighting for survival in a New York hospital while she painted him. The image evokes the blurry images of store windows and city lights of Hartigan’s desperate journeys to the sickroom. It’s not that happy after all.
Robert Motherwell’s “All is Still” (1970) is aptly named. While Motherwell was a pioneering abstract expressionist, this piece does not fit the bill. This is one of his last paintings – a new series, in a new style. Not pictorial, expressive or energetic. Think meditative and calming. A red and black vertical rectangular shape evokes a door. The horizontal shape below looks like a path. Your mind projects a feeling of space into the artwork. But you have to do it deliberately – it’s still obviously a painting. Conscious attention is the result. Motherwell’s painting is a stripped down version of a Tibetan yantra. It is designed to focus the mind. And it works.
There is a cliché notion of abstract art in American popular culture. This exhibition demolishes him. No two pieces are alike. Each artwork you see changes your perception of the rest. You can enter this exhibition with locker designs. You will leave with a mind full of questions. And a lot to say on the way home.
Sparking discussion was a key goal, according to Wlusek.
“I wanted to open a conversation about abstraction with this exhibition,” she says. “These works are in dialogue with each other and also reflect an important historical moment in our visual culture. These works also speak to the paintings in our exhibition “Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed”, as many of these artists knew and worked with Solomon at the same time. She adds: “This will not be the last abstract art exhibition in The Ringling collection. I wanted to start the dialogue by taking a closer look at the different approaches to abstract art in New York and Sarasota. “
This is exactly what Wlusek did.
The dialogue has started. And this is a very good start.