Last year, “Yellow Band,” the Sheldon Museum of Art’s Mark Rothko painting, traveled to England and Spain.
There it was included alongside Willem de Kooning’s “Woman II,” Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles,” Barnett Newman’s “Adam” and “Eve” and dozens of other paintings and sculptures in “Abstract Expressionism,” a survey exhibition of the post-war art movement at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.
Returning from Spain, where he had gone in January to monitor the transfer of the Rothko to the Guggenheim and its hanging there, Sheldon director and chief curator Wally Mason was listening to jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker on his flight, thinking about “Abstract Expressionism,” “Yellow Band” and the Sheldon’s collection of work from the movement.
“I came back from Bilbao and said to myself ‘We’ve got a critical mass of New York school work. We ought to get them out,’" Mason said. “They may have been shown collectively in the past, but not properly.”
The result of Mason’s decision to show Sheldon’s abstract expressionist holdings is “Now’s The Time,” an exhibition of 39 objects, all but one from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln art museum’s collection.
A few of those objects, like the Rothko, are internationally recognized masterpieces.
Some, like Jackson Pollock’s “Untitled (Composition with Ritual Scene)” are important early works by major figures in the movement.
Some come from artists who are nearly forgotten or, as in the case of Theodoros Stamos, have, in Mason’s words, been “thrown to the ashcan of history for no good reason.”
Together, they form a strong introduction to the what scholar David Anfam, in his instructive essay in the “Abstract Expressionism” catalog, calls “a phenomenon” rather than a movement.
“Abstract Expressionism was never a close-knit, small group of artists, unlike, say the Cubists,” Anfam wrote. “Unlike such earlier movements as Suprematism, Futurism or Surrealism, the Abstract Expressionists scarcely issued any programmatic manifestos or substantial theoretical statements.”
Instead, Anfam argues that Abstract Expressionism grew out of Symbolism, which believed that art is infused with emotions, using color and line to convey them, then fused by the apocalyptic threat and social discontent of the late 1940s and 1950s.
As initially conceived, the Sheldon exhibition would have covered just those years, beginning in 1945 and ending in 1960. But as he looked at Sheldon’s abstract expressionist holdings, Mason broadened the time period.
That opened the door to Pollock’s 1938-1941 painting “Untitled (Composition with Ritual Scene)’’ and a rare Clyfford Still, 1945’s “PH-794." At the other end of the timeline, it brought in Philip Guston’s “Untitled” 1967 ink on paper and Lee Krasner’s “Invocation” from 1969-1971.
“Now’s The Time,” which takes its name from a 1945 Charlie Parker song, isn’t presented chronologically, nor is it intended to be comprehensive.
That said, it contains vivid examples of work by:
* Hans Hofmann, the German painter and teacher who was a pivotal figure in the development of abstract expression, with 1958’s “The City”
* deKooning, with the striking charcoal and oil on paper of “Woman,” purchased out of his studio in 1954
* Newman, with the 1949 ‘zip’ painting “Horizon Light”
* Robert Motherwell, with 1950’s red-and-black study of a door “Hotel Flora”
* and Franz Kline, with his 1960 ink-on-paper on cardboard “Study for Shenandoah Wall.”
Those names, along with Pollock, Still and Guston, are a standard New York school litany that is, due in large part to the influence of critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, all male.
“We sort of wrote our version of it, which was the Clement Greenberg version -- men and not women,” Mason said of the development of Sheldon’s abstract expressionism holdings.
As a corrective, “Now’s The Time” includes a pair of new acquisitions -- Judith Godwin’s “Male Study” from 1954 and Perle Fine’s “Spinning Figure” from 1949.
Godwin, now 87, is one of a handful of artists who gained far greater visibility after being included in the Denver Art Museum’s “Women of Abstract Expressionism” last year. “Male Study” is a strong example of her work that folds in Kline’s strong dark lines into loosely structured geometric abstraction that is overlain with drips of white paint reminiscent of Pollock.
Fine’s painting is, essentially, surrealist, a work that links directly to Pollock’s “Untitled (Composition with Ritual Scene)” as early examples of an artist’s work that show that mature “action painting” didn’t spring up out of nowhere.
Krasner, who was married to Pollock and carried on a career for decades after, is represented by a late period painting that used nature-derived imagery emphasizing calligraphic qualities and sharpened edges. At the time of its 2012 acquisition, ”Invocation” was the most expensive painting ever purchased by Sheldon.
Other women with work in the show include Helen Frankenthaler and Hedda Sterne.
Frankenthaler's 1964 “Red Frame” is a poured paint piece, the bright acrylics linking, color field painting and abstract expressionism. She’s been part of the abstract expressionist canon since the beginning because she had a five-year relationship with Greenberg in the 1950s before marrying Motherwell.
Sterne, who painted 1955' "New York, #5" was the only female in “The Irascibles,” the famous 1950 Life Magazine photograph of 16 painters that introduced the country to the New York School that was then part of a small art scene that painter Michael Goldberg said numbered less than 1,000 people.
Two of the exhibition’s sculptural works also come from women -- Louise Bourgeois’ 1947-1949 painted bronze “Observer” that’s one of the show’s few figurative works and Louise Nevelson’s 1959 “Black Table Game,” a black wooden box filled with carved objects that’s the only piece in the show not owned by Sheldon.
The other key sculpture -- and one of the exhibition’s greatest masterworks -- isn’t in the second floor galleries with the rest of the work. It’s David Smith’s monumental stainless steel “Superstructure on 4,” a 1960 sculpture that, after decades outside, now stands in Sheldon’s Great Hall.
Unlike most such surveys, “Now’s The Time” also includes photographs -- a handful of images of New York City from Ted Croner, shot in 1947-48 and William Klein, shot in 1955.
“The question is always ‘Can a movement be location-based?'”, Mason said. “Photography, more than anything else, told it with location, (and) it was New York.”
The city figures into the small showcase gallery off the main exhibition that attempts to put the New York School into its cultural context. The walls are covered with photographs of Motherwell, Krasner, Fine, Hofmann, gallerist Betty Parsons and David Smith’s studio. A row of books provide the written context for the movement.
And a video includes images of artists, jazz musicians like Miles Davis, dancer Martha Graham and poet Allen Ginsberg reading his controversial 1956 masterpiece “Howl.”
Intended to connect abstract expression with the cultural upheaval that produced bebop, modern dance and the beat generation for students born in the late 1990s, the video and gallery isn’t all that much of a stretch.
Beats Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso often hung out at the Cedar Tavern as did the painters.
Their shared reason for patronizing the Greenwich Village bar, Goldberg said in 2003, was that Cedar Street let them put the food they consumed on a tab, making them only pay upfront for drinks.
Goldberg, who was one of the abstract expressionists who had a day job working as a truck driver, said that he’d get hit up for every two weeks by artists who’d take the money to Cedar Street to pay off their tab.
“I should have just taken my check there,” he said.
That’s evidence that, for years, the New York School artists struggled to survive. Many of Pollock’s early, pivotally important works failed to sell, leading to the donation of “Mural,” his 1943 breakthrough painting, to the University of Iowa, and 1947’s “Galaxy,” one of the first drip paintings, to Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum.
Those paintings are now valued in the millions, as are some of the Sheldon pieces.
And, 70 years after it began, the abstract expressionists are recognized as the creators of a distinctly American art, a move away from European traditions to a brash, rule-bending art of a country not far removed from its frontier origins.
That makes the New York School key for a museum, like Sheldon, dedicated to American art. “Now’s The Time” impressively demonstrates how the small museum in the middle of the country, embraced abstract expressionism and can deliver a representative sampling of the movement that forever changed art.