Beginnings of the American Avant–Garde
Il Guggenheim. L’avanguardia americana 1945–1980 exaines major developments in American art during a transformative period in U.S. history, one marked by economic prosperity, political upheaval, and international conflict, as well as a vibrant cultural flourishing. The exhibition begins with the years following World War II, when the rise of Abstract Expressionism drew international attention to a circle of artists working in New York and the United States emerged as a global center for modern art. From this time forward, the postwar era witnessed a rich proliferation of varied aesthetic practices by American artists: from Pop Art’s irreverent embrace of vernacular imagery to the intellectual meditations on meaning that characterized 1960s Conceptualism; from the spare aesthetic of Minimalism to the lush visuals of Photorealism in the 1970s. Though resulting in widely divergent artworks, these movements all shared a fundamental commitment to interrogating the nature, purpose, and meaning of art. As it examines this critical moment in American art, Il Guggenheim. L’avanguardia americana 1945–1980 also reflects on the Guggenheim Museum’s role in shaping this history through its long–standing support of emerging artists. Drawn primarily from the museum’s permanent collection in New York, the paintings, sculptures, photographs, and installations on view all embody the specific interests of individual curators, collectors, and scholars who championed the contemporary art of their day and left their stamp on the institution over time. In tandem with the vital aesthetic movements witnessed in the postwar period, the Guggenheim developed from its roots as a distinctive showcase for European abstract painting into an international venue for modern and contemporary art an evolution underscored in this exhibition by the important selections from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The next two galleries present various approaches to abstraction developed in the United States in the decade immediately following World War II. The term “Abstract Expressionism” encompasses a wide variety of postwar American practices that together established New York as a center of the avant–garde. Many of the artists whose work is on view in these galleries — including Jackson Pollock, William Baziotes, and Mark Rothko — were given their first public showing at Art of This Century, the influential gallery/museum founded in New York by Solomon Guggenheim’s niece Peggy Guggenheim.
The New York School In 1942
Peggy Guggenheim opened a museum and gallery space in New York called Art of This Century. One of the few venues for modernist art in the city at the time, Art of This Century presented innovative exhibitions that helped to foster a dialogue between the European avant–gardists who had fled to New York during the war and a younger generation of American painters, including William Baziotes, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. The latter group of artists, as well as others in their circle, became known collectively as the New York School. Over the course of the 1940s they abandoned the Social Realist style that had predominated in the previous decade and pioneered approaches to abstract painting that built upon a diverse range of precedents, including Mexican murals and Native American art, as well as Cubism and Surrealism. The Surrealists’ emphasis on the unconscious mind proved to be a particularly important touchstone for New York School artists. Many embraced variations on the Surrealist technique of automatism, excluding conscious reflection from the art–making process with the aim of accessing psychic depths. The abstract, gestural forms of Pollock’s drip paintings, such as Untitled (Green Silver) (ca. 1949), and Willem de Kooning’s Composition (1955) convey a dramatic sense of improvisation and spontaneity, and many understood such works to be the direct expression of the artist’s subjectivity. Rothko’s tranquil fields of color, as in Untitled (1947), convey spiritual feeling in secular, abstract forms. In 1947, after only five years but not before she had left her mark on the New York art world, Peggy Guggenheim closed Art of This Century and moved to Europe. Many of the works in this gallery were originally part of Peggy Guggenheim’s own collection, which would join the larger holdings of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1976. These selections chart in rich detail the struggles and advances of the New York School at a time when the course of American painting and its place in the canon of modernism was anything but assured.
Abstraction in the 1960s
By the end of the 1950s, new modes of abstract painting — known as “hard–edged” or “post–painterly” — had emerged in the wake of the New York School. The artists represented in this gallery favored cool precision, flat colors, and geometric compositions over the energetic, spontaneous gestures that were the hallmark of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. In 1966 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York presented Systemic Painting, an exhibition that surveyed this new generation of abstractionists. Curator Lawrence Alloway argued that artists such as Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland had largely abandoned the expressionist impulse of the New York School to explore the fundamentals of painting: lines, fields, color, and canvas shape. In Alloway’s view, the pure colors and strict order of compositions such as Stella’s Harran II (1967) expressed nothing beyond the logic of a predetermined “system” underlying the work and guiding the artist’s process. This is not to say that abstract painters in the 1960s sacrificed entirely the rich aesthetic achievements of the New York School. Morris Louis’s 1–68 (1962) exemplifies the “soak stain” technique that he developed in his large–scale works, in which he poured thinned medium from the top of the painting, allowing it to soak into the unprimed canvas as it cascaded to the bottom. The resulting ethereal fields of color manifest a complexity and a nuance that rival those of Mark Rothko. Other artists saw the stripped–down vocabulary of “systemic” painting as a starting point for investigating the relationship between art and the architectural settings it occupied. Paintings reduced to the barest possible means directed the viewer’s attention outward, beyond the parameters of the canvas and toward the surrounding space. Ellsworth Kelly was one of the earliest artists to exploit the aesthetic potential of this dynamic with works that blurred the line between two–dimensional painting and three–dimensional sculpture. His Orange Red Relief (1959) juts out from the wall, transforming the flat, monochrome painted surface into something closer to a nonrepresentational relief.
From the end of World War II through the 1960s, the United States witnessed a period of rapid economic growth that gave rise to a newly invigorated consumer culture. A number of artists responded to the commercialism around them by incorporating images from mass culture into their work and embracing new techniques for art making that mimicked (or mocked) industrial methods. Dubbed Pop Art, this work had as its source the world of pulp magazines, billboards, advertisements, movies, television, and comic strips. Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol rejected the spontaneous gesture of New York School aesthetics to create works that reflected the impersonal logic of commercial printmaking and mass production. Many of the works in this gallery are infused with humor, wit, and irony and may be read as both an unabashed celebration and a scathing critique of popular culture. The Guggenheim’s engagement with Pop Art began early in Pop’s development. In particular, the 1963 exhibition Six Painters and the Object — curated by Lawrence Alloway, who had helped coin the term “Pop” in the late 1950s — provided institutional validation at a critical juncture. In this gallery are works by artists who were included in that exhibition, among them Robert Rauschenberg, whose monumental painting Barge (1962–63) surpasses in scale even the largest Abstract Expressionist paintings. In this work, Rauschenberg employed a silkscreen process to transfer found images — photographs of transportation infrastructure, reproductions of Old Master paintings, and images of athletes in motion — directly onto the thirty–two– foot–wide canvas, combining them with swaths of dripped paint and passages of text to create an intense and dynamic visual field. By the end of the 1960s Pop Art had dissipated as a movement, but the later works of many of its practitioners continue to provide commentary on contemporary culture. Commissioned for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, the panel from James Rosenquist’s The Swimmer in the Econo–mist (1997–98) on view here presents a tableau of media–derived images and references to the artist’s past work. A portrait of Germany’s dynamic present and optimistic future the three–painting suite conveys the epic technological, political, and economic momentum of the past century.
Developing alongside Pop Art in the 1960s, Minimalism similarly signaled a break with the New York School’s expressionist aesthetic. Characterized by basic geometric forms fabricated from industrial materials, with few traces of the artist’s hand, Minimalist sculpture dispensed with illusion and representation to foreground the viewer’s experience of encountering the literal art object in the gallery space. Donald Judd, often considered the quintessential Minimalist artist, designed highly refined cubes and rectangular forms, outsourcing their production to industrial fabricators. He frequently arranged these “specific objects,” as he called them, in serial configurations meant to circumvent traditional notions of artistic composition. The spacing between the rectangular metal forms in Untitled (1970), for instance, is based on the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on). Dan Flavin’s constructions of store–bought fluorescent light fixtures similarly employ industrial materials. His Untitled (1966), designed to occupy a corner of the gallery, resists conventional modes of displaying art, and its immaterial cast of light appears to dissolve architectural boundaries. Scaled in relation to the human body, these works engage the viewer’s perception in real space and time, as does Carl Andre’s floor sculpture Fifth Copper Triode (1975), which invites the viewer to walk over the surface of its copper plates. Like its sculptural counterparts, Minimalist painting distilled its medium to its essential components, and it often featured monochromatic surfaces, as in Robert Ryman’s Allied (1966) and Robert Mangold’s Circle Painting 6 (1973). One of the few collectors who sought out work by Mangold, Ryman, Flavin, Judd, and their contemporaries in the 1960s was the Italian collector Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, who filled his family estate in Varese with important examples of Minimalist painting and sculpture as well as Process, Post–Minimal, and Conceptual art. The collection is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s most important holdings of art of the 1960s and 1970s. On view in this and the adjoining gallery is a selection of the 389 works the Guggenheim acquired from Panza’s collection through purchase and gift in 1991 and 1992. This important acquisition solidified the institution’s long–standing commitment to this period in American art.
Post–minimalism and Conceptual Art
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a large number of artists in the United States posed challenging questions about the nature and meaning of art. They embraced new mediums, worked with nontraditional materials, and created ephemeral artworks that changed or decayed over time. Some artists proposed that their work could exist primarily (or only) as an immaterial idea or concept. Many of these radical new practices also implicitly critiqued art–world institutions such as museums and galleries, which were structured for the display of permanent objects. The term “Post–Minimalism” refers to a range of sculptural practices that responded to, developed, and critiqued the aesthetics of Minimalism. Like Donald Judd’s precisely fabricated Minimalist objects, Richard Serra’s sculptures employed industrial materials, but they emphasized the physical process of their making and the literal qualities of the materials involved. In his Template (1967), for example, three pieces of vulcanized rubber are draped over a peg in the wall, allowing the material’s interaction with the force of gravity to determine the work’s final form. From this emphasis on process, some artists conceived of the making and viewing of art as a time–based experience bordering on theatrical performance. In Bruce Nauman’s Live–Taped Video Corridor (1970), the viewer completes the piece by walking down the narrow passageway. Less a sculpture than a situation, Nauman’s work presents a space that is physically and psychologically disorienting. Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo was one of the first collectors to support Post–Minimalist artists in the late 1960s. He also built a pioneering collection of Conceptual art, several examples of which are on view in this gallery. Privileging concept over material and idea over sensory quality, Conceptual artists challenged the primacy of the unique art object. The concepts of art as language and language as art were central to the work of Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth, among others. For Weiner, material presence is eliminated altogether and language itself becomes the sculptural medium. The artist’s text installations — such as EARTH TO EARTH ASHES TO ASHES DUST TO DUST (1970), on view in the Rotonda — describe material processes and physical conditions and also delineate space. Responsibility for the work’s realization is shifted to the audience, who can imagine for themselves the materials or actions referred to.
Among the many legacies of Pop Art in the United States was the rise of Photorealist painting in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Under the direction of Thomas M. Messer, the Guggenheim was at the forefront of collecting work by Photorealists such as Robert Bechtle, Tom Blackwell, Chuck Close, and others. Artists working in this mode typically used photography to record information, which they then transposed onto large–scale canvases, translating mechanically reproducible images into meticulously hand–rendered oil paintings. Striving for sharp verisimilitude above all else, the Photorealists worked with the same kind of emotional detachment as the Pop artists who operated silkscreen presses. The imagery they chose to translate frequently captured aspects of everyday life in America that similarly resonated with Pop. In Photorealist painting, reality is twice removed, and the photographic source is given as much weight as the scene it depicts. In contrast to the Pop artists, however, the Photorealists did not present their mundane subject matter in a glamorized or ironic manner. Rather, reproducing the way the camera views reality afforded a radical objectivity in relation to the subject matter. Blackwell’s paintings, such as Little Roy’s Gold Wing (1977), focus on the shining chrome and metal of automobiles, airplanes, and motorcycles, while Charles Bell’s oversized depictions of toys, marbles, and gumball machines — as in Gum Ball No. 10: “Sugar Daddy” (1975) — display an equal virtuosity in their rendering of the reflection of light off hard candy shells and plastic surfaces. The variety of Photorealist approaches is apparent in Close’s large painterly portrait Stanley (1980–81). The work depicts a salesman the artist met on the beach when the two men’s children were playing together. Working from a photograph of the subject, Close transferred the image to a grid on the canvas, using systematically painted colored dots. While the abstract patterning within each of the grid’s squares may suggest more expressionistic painting styles, Close remained true to the mechanical reproduction of the photograph, not allowing spontaneity or emotion to enter his working process.