Full of vim, overflowing with energy, elbowing old ideas out the way, the paintings and sculpture in this traveling show still look as though museums are not exactly where they ought to be. They belong in the thick of life, not apart from it.
Core pieces in the special exhibition come from the S.C. Johnson & Son’s gift to the Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian of 102 works purchased from living American artists early in the 1960s. The Johnson Collection was a pivotal element in the Smithsonian’s revamping of its presentation of all American art in the late 1960s. The National Museum of American Art opened in what had been the Old Patent Office, a handsome building occupying a full block, in 1968.
As a survey, Modern Masters has omissions — no Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Clyfford Still or Barnett Newman. It functions not as a “greatest hits” of Abstract Expressionism but as a slice in time from a marvelously inventive period. Much of what it has is excellent, as Josef Albers, Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Diebenkorn and Joan Mitchell are among the major names represented in the exhibition.
The show was a particular treat for me because some of these works are old friends from living in Washington and volunteering at the museum. I remember that we all shuddered when a partygoer put his cocktail glass on the wooden shelf stuck to a Rauschenberg the museum owned (but not in this show), but the artist was reported to have laughed. At Dayton Art Institute, I gladly reacquainted myself with Reinhardt’s austere, sublime black squares touched slightly by blue or plum in “Abstract Painting No.
4” (1961) and wanted to say, “It’s been too long” to Gottlieb’s magisterial “Three Discs” (1960). Both works have only gained authority with the years.
New to me was the earliest work in the show, Reinhardt’s bright and jazzy — who knew? — untitled, high-colored abstraction of 1940. It came into the collection after I was back in Ohio, as did Hans Hofmann’s “Fermented Soil” (1965), perhaps my favorite piece in the exhibition, with its rough surface, strong color and complicated interactions.
The exhibition is helpfully organized into three sections. “Significant Gestures” includes that master of the gesture, Kline, and others. “Optics and Order” highlights several artists, including Albers, all of whom endlessly explore the effect of colors on each other. A late-ish (1978) contribution to this field by Ilya Bolotowsky, “Tondo Variation in Red,” looks fresh as if made yesterday, although the same artist’s “Architectural Variations” (1949) seems oddly dated.
Cincinnati’s Jim Dine turns up in the final section, “New Images of Man,” which recognizes that figural art never really went away. Dine’s “The Valiant Red Car” is close to billboard size and rewards attention. Nearby is one of my surprises of the show, Nathan Oliveira’s “Nineteen Twenty-Nine” (1961), an arresting portrait of his mother perfectly hung, almost by itself, with perfect lighting to bring out the textured surface (pictured above).
The post-war American Abstract Expressionist movement can be carelessly categorized as paintings by white male New Yorkers — a simplification the exhibition is at pains to counter. Californians are included: Diebenkorn with a fascinating early “Ocean Park” painting, all rich colors and curves, and Sam Francis with “Blue Balls,” with its whirls of blue almost escaping the canvas but the center left untouched.
Among women presented are two sculptors, Louise Nevelson, with two 1950s black-painted assemblages, and Anne Truitt, whose reductive art appears here as the black-painted columns of “Keep” (1962). Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler are represented by strong paintings.
The African-American Romare Bearden crosses whatever color barrier existed and appears in the exhibition with two 1960s collages.
Of course, not all the New Yorkers were born there, nor were all the contributors to mid-century American art born American. Albers and Hofmann, both enormously influential as teachers as well as through their work, came here from Germany in the 1930s and others emigrated from elsewhere.
The excitement of American mid-century art was a culmination of the place, the time (World War II had just been won and the U.S. was a world leader) and a plethora of talented people often interacting with one another. This exhibition provides a telling look at a period we now see as history.
A rewarding way to see this and any show is with an artist, but, as that isn’t always possible, the Dayton Art Institute provides the next best thing. Your cell phone can dial up recorded comments by local artists about specific works. If you have a smart phone you can also scan in information connecting certain works to Dayton’s own collection.
MODERN MASTERS FROM THE SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM is on view at the Dayton Art Institute through Oct. 10. Get show and venue details here.
The exhibition’s curator, Virginia Mecklenburg, speaks at DAI at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16.