Yale University Art Gallery Exhibits ‘Mid-Century Abstraction’

An exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery showcases the works of artists throughout their careers.



Daniella Sanchez, collaborating photographer

Currently on view at Yale University Art Gallery is “Midcentury Abstraction: A Closer Look” – an exhibition that brings together works from a wide range of artists, capturing the breadth and variety of midcentury art. of the XXth century.

Through these carefully selected works of art, the exhibition assembles specific moments from each artist’s career that together tell the complex stories of their processes of breakthrough from medium, genre and style into abstraction. The exhibition opened on February 25 and is on view until June 21. It is inspired by a gift to the Friday Foundation Gallery honoring the legacy of late Seattle collectors Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang, who held an exceptional collection. works of art from the mid-twentieth century. The donation consisted of six works on canvas and paper by American artists Franz Kline and Mark Rothko.

The Langs had a unique way of collecting the artwork that inspired this installation. Rather than casting a wide net, the Langs focused on collecting the works of specific artists. Their collection allows us to see the trajectory traveled by these artists during their career. The exhibition’s curators – Elisabeth Hodermarsky, Keely Orgeman and Gregor Quack GRD ’24 – drew inspiration from the Langs by seeking out other works in the Yale University Art Gallery collection to engage in similar conversations with the journeys of others. artists.

According to Quack, “When a major gift arrives, it always forces you to re-examine what you already have.”

“The Friday Foundation knew what we had in our possessions, so the donation reflects what we didn’t have,” Hodermarsky said. “They knew we didn’t have an early Kline or Rothko.”

The curators have constructed a non-linear tapestry of mid-century abstraction by bringing together the development of a wide range of artists – from across Europe, China, America and Latin America – through historical overlaps and formal correspondences. Many artists shared similar struggles fleeing their homes during World War II while finding their artistic voice.

The exhibition begins in a small room with a series of pieces by Kline. The first painting, “Portrait of Nijinsky”, is an early work depicting the famous ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. By juxtaposing this portrait – made of broad, expressive strokes and contrasting black, white and blood-red paint – with later work like “Ravenna”, which contains his signature abstract and gestural style, one visually captures the connection between where the artist started and where he was able to get into his style. Moreover, by positioning a study for “Ravenna” next to the complete work, the curators sought to change the usual interpretations of the artist’s work.

“Through the studies, and looking closely at how uniquely ‘Ravenna’ the lines are, one can see how much more careful and deliberate he is than people have come to believe of his association with gestural abstraction,” said curator Keely Orgeman. .

Both Hodermarsky and Orgeman explained that starting the exhibit in this way sets the stage for the rest of the comparisons and juxtapositions made throughout the exhibit.

In the next room, viewers are faced with a wall filled with black voids. Hanging there is a painting by Rothko made in the 1950s, before the artist’s style shifted to his remarkable three-tier color field paintings. On the adjacent wall, two works by Lee Bontecou, ​​still in use today, evoke black holes.

“There’s something about associating these black holes or voids together,” Hodermarsky said. “The void draws the viewer inside.”

Quack said one of the best things about putting these works together in person is seeing how surprising “what speaks to what” in the piece can be.

The pieces also evoke dialogue through themes that the artists considered in their creation. An early untitled Rothko from the 1940s depicts a Greek tragedy with faces depicted in the upper register moving into more abstract territory lower down. Not only does the work encapsulate the transition to the artist’s abstract career, but one can also see how Rothko seeks to elicit human emotion through drama, and later through color.

As Rothko himself once said, “Without monsters and gods, art cannot play drama”, demonstrating how he continued to think about these myths in his later works.

The curators also had the opportunity to bring out of storage works by artists who have experienced similar moments of suspension and transition in their careers.

A painting titled “7-10-63” by Sino-French painter Zao Wou-Ki abstractly captures what appears to be a landscape or seascape.

“The specificity of the title evokes this specific moment, a day in time that he chose to capture through abstraction,” Orgeman said. It refers to all the individual moments that build the paths of these artists by positioning themselves in the world.

The exhibition shows how artists move through mediums over time. It includes works by Louise Nevelson, who blurs the line between sculpture and two-dimensional art, as well as the intermediate stages of the artists’ work that contain remnants of what they would become. For example, Gilliam Bevel’s paintings were followed by his later work focusing on suspended color fields, and Jesús Rafael Soto, who invites the viewer to be an active participant in pieces like “Black Writing”, but then moves on to creating whole pieces that viewers can immerse themselves in.

“Thanks to the gift from the Friday Foundation and through this exhibition, we can go beyond seeing these artists as a single, canonical moment in their art, but rather seeing them as artists thinking and working on an issue at different times. of their work,” Quack said. .

Quack hopes this exhibit will help art students see artwork in a museum not just as a gold standard, but rather as examples of artists going through the same struggles, successes and failures in the world of art. art. The exhibition explores how these artists were able to position their work in times of war and in their personal lives and reveals what it means to become an artist and embrace each step towards mastery.

Julia P. Cluff