Ad Reinhardt (1913 – 1967) studied both Eastern and Western art history at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He deepened his understanding of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies by attending the lectures of Zen teacher Daisetz Suzuki at Columbia University. Number 22 (1949) shows Reinhardt fusing Eastern and Western traditions by using calligraphic brushwork inspired by Chinese and Japanese calligraphy in a gridded composition influenced by those of de Stijl cofounder Piet Mondrian.
Number 22, Detail
In classical East Asian painting, the fragility of paper wet with ink limits the artist’s ability to rework the composition. The sturdier canvas support and slower-drying oil paints used throughout much of the history of Western painting allows artists to highlight various revision and layering techniques. Although he worked in oil on canvas, Reinhardt chose to restrain himself and not rework his painting’s surface, in keeping with Asian calligraphic traditions. The result is a far more controlled manner of gestural painting than those of the Abstract Expressionists.
This Untitled Abstract Painting (circa 1963 or 64) is one of the last paintings made by Eva Hesse before she switched to sculpture. Its deconstructed symbols, figures, and shapes evoke natural forms and bodies without ever being directly identifiable. Delicate brushwork, soft colors and a light, witty touch lend this work a feminine quality that she intended as a rebuke to the masculinity of Minimalist Art. Hess was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex at this time, and the text led her to question her own fragmented status as artist, woman and wife. Her work, though not overtly political, explores these issues in poetic, expressive abstractions.
In 1978, Elizabeth Murray (1940 – 2007) made a series of irregular, star-shaped paintings with the aim, she said, of “trying to complicate and obfuscate the edges” of her medium. Indeed, the jostling contours and vivid colors of Onceappear to explode outward, as if pressing the very form on the canvas into new arrangements. Murray’s dynamic compositions, charged brush strokes, and radical disruption of the frame transform the picture plane into both surface and object. While these paintings appear purely abstract, hints of imagery and reference return in subsequent works. Drawing on Cubism, Surrealism and Minimalism, Murray’s fragmented geometries and biomorphic shapes reinvigorated formalist painting in the 1970s and 1980s.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
Hard Sweetness (1971) is one of Joan Snyder’s Stroke paintings, a series in which abstract imagery and mark-making register personal and political struggles and decisions. Snyder began making art in the late 1960s, a time when men dominated the art world. Her sensibility and style were inspired by feminism, music, Expressionism, and her own life experience, as well as dislike of the distilled macho aesthetics of Minimalism.
Hard Sweetness uses strokes of paint in soft stains, loose washes, and thicker scumbling ( applying a very thin coat of opaque paint to give a softer or duller effect) to create rhythmic, almost musical passages of color across the canvas. As the title of this work suggests, Snyder blurs the distinction between the senses of sight, taste and perhaps even sound and smell. Like her contemporary Eva Hesse, she balances a feminine palette with a muscular formal complexity.
By the late 1920s, Rudolf Bauer (1889 – 1953) had replaced the lively and organic symphony of shapes that he had developed in his earlier work with a more balanced aesthetic. Invention (Composition 31) (1933) epitomizes this trend and features flat geometries tightly gravitating toward a dark center, a hazy black shape perhaps symbolizing the ultimate void. Also around this time, museum founder Solomon R. Guggenheim became acquainted with the artist through Bauer’s former companion, Hilla Rebay. Not only was Bauer’s work amassed in depth, but he also played an integral role as Guggenheim’s European agent in the first decade that Guggenheim spent forming his modern art collection. Invention (Composition 31) was reproduced on the cover of the catalogue Art of Tomorrow, which accompanied the opening exhibition of the Guggenheim Museum’s Non-Objective Painting, New York in June 1939.
Like the Surrealists he admired, and his fellow Abstract Expressionists, William Baziotes (1912 – 1963) was fascinated by the power of myth. Here, the title The Flesh Eaters (1952) and its imagery suggest the story of the Cyclops, the one-eyed giant who devoured Odysseus’s sailors in Homer’s epic poem. In this ambitious work, Baziotes applied layer upon layer of oil paint and rubbed it into the canvas to create a shimmering, opalescent surface that evokes an underwater world inhabited by undulating, biomorphic forms. Characteristically, the artist combined menacing forms with luminous colors to create a paradoxical work that is both repulsive and compelling.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
French born artist Jean Hélion (1904 – 1987) painted Standing Figure at a time when he was a central proponent of nonrepresentational art in the United Stares. In 1936, Hélion was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group, which counted among its members Willem de Kooning. In this painting, the body is interpreted in curved forms and shaded in tones of gray that resemble the metallic parts of a machine. Hélion’s depiction of the human figure is inspired by the quick-paced life of the city streets, and the presence of new technology in urban settings.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum on Art in NYC.