In 1947, while a student at Back Mountain College, Ruth Asawa (1926 – 2013) made a visit to Toluca, Mexico. There, she was introduced to a local method of crocheting wire to create baskets for carrying eggs. The discovery led Asawa to experiment with weaving wire into continuous, organic forms like the above Untitled sculpture (1955), which is described as a hanging six-lobed, complex interlocking continuous form-within-a-form, with two interior spheres. These works challenged conventional ideas of sculpture by embracing utilitarian craft methods and relying on the ceiling instead of the floor for support.
Photographed September 2020
In the early 1950s, Asawa later explained, the art establishment passed over her work because “it wasn’t traditional sculpture. They thought it was craft, or something else, but not art.” For Asawa, woven wire offered many possibilities of form and resulted in a work that was both transparent and airy, qualities that make the surrounding space part of the experience of the work and emphasize the connection between the interior and the exterior of the object.
In mid-century America, molded Box Handbags like this one (circa 1955) were fabricated by the New York City accessory firm Wilardy aka Wilardy Originals, which embraced the increasingly experimental postwar design trend towards ‘scientific’ materials such as Lucite.
“A painting should be something that begins and ends in itself,” Rhod Rothfuss wrote. With this cut-out frame, the artist put his principle into practice: in Yellow Quadrangle (Cuadrilongo Amarillo, 1955) the slender yellow rectangle on the left juts out, and the support takes on the shape of the painting itself . While his work was indebted to that of Joaquin Torres-Garcia and to European abstract artists such as Mondrian, Tothfuss was also influenced by vernacular practices. The alkyd resin present in this work was also used by the artist to create floats for carnival parades in his native Montevideo.
With its petal-like stole, this evening gown, The Tree (1955), transforms the wearer into a flower, giving her a sensual elegance. Couturier Charles James (1906 – 1978) often envisioned his clients as exotic flowers and he believed that fashion should arouse the mating instinct. Ooh!
One of the most prominent women associated with Surrealism in the United States, Kay Sage (1898 – 1963) made this work after a five-month hiatus from painting following the sudden death of her husband Yves Tanguy. like many Surrealists, she utilized landscape imagery as a metaphor for the mind and psychological states of being. Rendered in somber gray tones, Tomorrow is Never (1955) combines motifs that appear often in in the later stages of her career, including architectural scaffolding, latticework structures, and draped figures, to evoke feelings of entrapment and dislocation. The painting is one of Sage’s last large works before her suicide in 1963.
Tomorrow is Never his part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
Jasper Johns created Green Target in 1955. The painting was included in a group show at the Jewish Museum. There the painting caught the attention of Leo Castelli, an art collector and self-described playboy who decided, at the age of 51, to open a gallery in New York.
Castelli had begun by selling paintings from his own collection; he also approached several young artists whose work interested him. In March 1957, after the Jewish Museum show, Castelli went to Pearl Street to invite Robert Rauschenberg to show at his gallery. In passing, Castelli mentioned that he had seen a painting by someone with the peculiar name of Jasper Johns, and that he would like to meet the artist. “Well, that’s very easy,” Rauschenberg said, “he’s downstairs.”
“I walked into the studio,” Castelli recalled, “and there was this attractive, very shy young man, and all these paintings. It was astonishing, a complete body of work. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
For Johns, who did not want to be associated with any particular group of painters, Castelli’s gallery was ideal, since it was new and had no specific identity. Castelli showed Johns’ Flag (1955) in a group show at his gallery later in 1957, and in 1958 he gave Johns his first one-man show. Here Johns displayed the result of more than three years of sustained effort: his flags, his targets, his numbers and alphabets. Johns became “an overnight sensation,” and was immediately plunged into a critical controversy that continued for several years.
To understand the controversy, one must recall the attitude of the New York art world in the middle 1950s. Abstract Expressionism – that movement which took as its fundamental tenet the necessity of communicating subjective content through an abstract art – reigned supreme in the city. The importance of Abstract Expressionism was confirmed by the fact that, for the first time in history, an indigenous American art movement had gained international significance.
The New York art world cherished Abstract Expressionism; it was almost impossible to conceive of anything else, to imagine any other premise for painting. As Rauschenberg said of that time, a young painter had “to start every day moving out from Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, which is sort of a long way to have to start from.” The burden was very heavy.
At the same time, the second generation of Abstract Expressionist painters were often perceived to have “slavishly imitated” their predecessors. The early shock and excitement of the movement were gone. “As the art market was glutted with the works of de Kooning’s admirers, the real achievements of de Kooning and his generation were becoming obscured.” There was a sense of waiting for something fresh and new, and newly provocative.
Johns provided the provocation. His assured and finely worked paintings of flags and targets offered an alternative to Abstract Expressionism, and reintroduced representation – the recognizable image – into painting.