Abstract States of Mind, at the Art Museum

Consider it a logical paradox. Global Development: Abstraction at Mid-Century, the new major exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, is an inherently nostalgic survey of a pervasive, once radical force in 20th-century art. Abstraction has lost its vein and its sense of mission, and the show, drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, serves as a reminder that yesterday’s revolution can be transformed, somehow, into today’s comforting relic.

Progressive energies become reflective in the background. Abstraction, which overturned prevailing truths in the art world when Kandinsky and others pioneered the idea in the early 20th century and through successive reinventions through Abstract Expressionism and other movements by mid-century, is now an accepted part of the cultural landscape. It looks like innocent eye candy on bank and corporate walls and domains where decorative imperatives prevail.

Of course, his powerful aesthetic imprint is still vital and infuses contemporary notions of art, both “traditional” and hybridized into new forms and developments. But what would Kandinsky, Gorky, Pollock and other titans of abstraction have thought about the fate of the abstract impulse in art?

A modest offer with an educational review, Go global considers the many side routes and ramifications of the abstract mothership, not to mention the contributions of the “global” community (a.k.a. beyond America and Europe).

For an immediate indication of the stark contrasts under the umbrella of abstract art, we enter the McCormick Gallery and are kindly confronted by Richard Anushkiewicz’s 1979 eyeball op-art cutout Centered Green. Turn right and we’re treated to the gestural, seeping color fandango of Ernst Wilhelm Nye’sChromatic strong and delicate” (“Strong and gentle colors”). (Biographical note: Neh, considered a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis, was drafted into the German army, where he befriended Kandinsky.)

Bridget Riley, Cancels, 1965. Emulsion on board. SBMA, Museum purchase. © Bridget Riley 2022

Thicker, darker and more tangible gestures mark the painting “May 10, 1961” by the French artist Pierre Soulage, one of the most famous figures in the art world represented in the show. Inspired by the cave light and atavistic aura of Lascaux and Altamira, Soulage creates something mystical in paint here.

A side gallery is dedicated to the designated category “Signs and Symbols” and includes smaller lithographs by famous artists. Lee Krasner (Jackson Pollock’s wife and widow) shows spare and subdued “action” pieces in a variety of hues, while Jasper Johns’ “Souvenir I” contrasts a gradational gray space with a photo-like self-portrait in the bottom corner.

Meanwhile, back in the Op Art zone, we find the mind-blowing hypnotic optical charm of ‘Annul’ (1965) by Bridget Riley, a star of the genre. It takes a literally shifting perspective, like observers, to achieve the desired impact and optical trickery of Yakov Agam’s New Year, III. He cleverly packs three bright color compositions into one, depending on the position of the observer.

Pierre Soulage, 10 May 1961, 1961. Oil on canvas, SBMA, gift of Robert B. and Mercedes H. Eichholz. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Other artists bring a personal foundation and guidance mechanisms to their work presented here. Kenzo Okada’s large but soothing “Insistence” shrewdly combines the calligraphic impulses of his native Japan with those of Abstract Expressionism not too dissimilar from, say, Franz Klein. Renowned British artist Ben Nicholson’s loosely geometric and drawing-like ‘Topaz’ is, the artist claims, a reflection of his misty seaside family home, turning the still lifes into ‘land-sea-sky-landscapes’.

Elsewhere, the distance between carefully selected abstraction and realism becomes a central expressive driving force. Of the photographs in the show, the strongest and most relevant is André Kertész’s “Martinique,” in which an image of an oceanfront hotel balcony—with a figure blurred behind frosted glass—is a mysteriously elegant, minimalist jewel of a vision.

Probably my own best-of-show nod, partly for sentimental reasons, goes to Gunther Gerzo’stime eats life/time eats life” (“Time Devours Life”), from 1961. With its poetically layered group of shapes as if winding pieces of fabric into an alternate dimension, the painting evokes both real-world and dream-like responses.

From another internal historical angle, the painting is a beautiful reminder of the important SBMA solo exhibition of Gerzso’s art in 2003, through which I and many others “discovered” the voice and vision of this all-too-obscure Mexican artist.

A single painting, abstract or otherwise, can have the power to take us back in time and memory, even as time consumes life.

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