Group Shows

In the attic: Abstract easel paintings from 1920-50

Esphyr Slobodkina’s “Small Abstraction in Tans.” Photo: Slobodkina Foundation
Lidy Prati, “Concreto,” 1945
Rosa Acle

The first exhibition to bring together South American and US geometric abstraction, Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920s-50s features more than 90 works by 70 artists from Argentina, Brazil, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela. Two Coats readers familiar with my series of tower paintings will know that I’ve long been drawn to the easel paintings of this particular period, and I’m looking forward to seeing the show.

Today in the NY Times, Holland Cotter writes gives an overview. “Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the mueseum assiduously bought, sometimes straight from artists studios, a type of American painting and sculpture known as geometric abstraction. Its attractive stuff: intimate in scale and coolly design-savvy, but shot through with political and personal content. For all its virtues, such art never found a wide audience. Dismissed as decorative and un-American in the isolationist 1930s, it was all but submerged in the flood tide of Abstract Expressionism. Newark was left with superlative holdings in an art no one knew or cared much about….But its the equitable mixing of art from North and South America, and the influential exchanges such mixing implies, that makes the Newark show especially exciting….

“Abstraction was a loaded genre for female artists, who were still are working in a mans world. As the art historian Aliza Edelman points out in the catalog, geometric art could be tactically used to disguise gender, or to reveal it in innovative ways. Mason, a New York founder of the American Abstract Artists group, spent a career resisting stylistic or ideological grooves. The spirit of her 1942 ‘Oil Composition’ is characteristic: she breaks up what there is of a rectilinear grid by pushing a big, pale potato-shaped form straight through its center. Around the same time, Lidy Prati was making rigorously geometric paintings reflecting scientific and mathematical ideas current at the time in Buenos Aires. But she, too, was a subversive. She developed a vocabulary of linear forms so small that they feel like a secret language as if geometric abstraction had been converted into some kind of private expressive code….

“The dynamic of nationalism versus internationalism was naturally a burning one. To varying personal degrees, artists in both North and South America wanted their work to be of its time and place, but also part of a larger world; to be culturally specific, but with universal reach….I have to say that the South Americans in the Newark show, playing so freely with movement, chance and light, take the prize for inventiveness. They really feel like artists of the future, and of a future that is still in the future. But thats just how the American story appears, at least to one set of eyes, here. It could be told very differently and surely will be in exhibitions to come, though it is thanks to big thinking on the part of an adventurous small museum that the possibility for retelling is even there at all.”

Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920s-50s, a fully illustrated exhibition catalog co-published by Pomegranate Press, features seven essays that place North and South American abstraction in dialogue. Authors include Karen A. Bearor, Tricia Laughlin Bloom, Aliza Edelman, Adele Nelson, Mary Kate O’Hare and Cecilia de Torres.

Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920s-50s, curated by Mary Kate O’Hare. Newark Museum, Newark, NJ. ThroughMay 23, 2010.

Related exhibition:
Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis, curated by Deborah Cullen. El Museo del Barrio, New York, NY. Through Feb. 28.  This exhibition examines pioneering Caribbean and Latin American artists who lived in New York City before World War II and helped shape the American avant-garde.

Related reading:
The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection
Check out the interactive website for the 2007 “Geometry of Hope” exhibition.

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