‘United States of Abstraction’: a nice way of putting it

Visual arts
Shirley Jaffe, The Red Diamond (detail), 1964

So that is what we have going on here … abstraction! Life certainly feels abstract lately. When you untether from science, reason, and truth, and when the ravings of a mad man are considered worthy of the public square, never mind that children hear his rants, things are drifting “out there.” But the French always find a ‘bon mot’ for “USA.” At a worthy exhibit, “United States of Abstraction: American Artists in France, 1946-1964,” opening August 5 in Montpellier’s Musee Fabre in the south of France, exiles may find a way to enjoy America — in the rear-view mirror. Unfortunately that may amount to half the country. The un-deplorable half. Get ready for an onslaught, Montpellier!

The locus of the abstract Expressionist movement of the post-War art, as we all know, was New York City. There, in the far reaches of the Cedar Tavern, Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, parrying with equals, acolytes, and enemies, sipped, chewed, bantered, and brawled after long hours in the studio. The fact remains, however, that between 1944 and 1953, many American artists (veterans, so mostly men) used their G.I. Bill funds to study and create in France. The research that forms the basis for “The United States of Abstraction,” tracks more than four hundred such artists.

Jack Youngerman, Tiger (detail), 1961

The show’s three sections have organizing themes. Just to be contrarian, the first eschews national origin and bundles works around ideas of “expressivity, gestural and automatic abstract painting.” American painters Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Mark Tobey, Claire Falkenstein, Alfonso Ossorio are associated with works by Wols, Jean Dubuffet, Georges Mathieu, Jean-Paul Riopelle.

The second section focuses on color. Those represented include abstract colorists Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, Shirley Jaffe, Kimber Smith, Norman Bluhm and Beauford Delaney, The third section examines a cadre of Americans (Ellsworth Kelly, Ralph Coburn, John Youngerman and Robert Breer) in tandem with their elders (Jean Arp, Alexander Calder) as well as their contemporaries (François Morellet), profoundly renewed geometric abstraction in post-war Paris. Isn’t this cool? We can all go to France and learn about American art.

Sam Francis, Blue Balls (detail), approx 1961-1962

United States of Abstraction” | Musée Fabre de Montpellier | Aug 5 – Oct 21

Shirley Jaffe, The Red Diamond (détail), 1964, huile sur toile, 195 x 135 cm, Courtesy Shirley Jaffe Estate et Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/ Bruxelles © ADAGP, Paris, 2021, photo : © Bertrand Huet / tuL image

Jack Youngerman, Tiger (détail), 1961, huile sur toile, 221,5 x 236,7 cm, Genève, Collection Fondation Gandur pour l’art, Courtesy Galerie Hervé Bize, Nancy et Jack Youngerman Archive Bridgehampton (ARS New York) photo : ©Adam Reich, © ADAGP, Paris, 2021

Sam Francis, Blue Balls (détail), vers 1961-1962, huile sur toile, 106,9 x 137,5 cm, Stockholm, Moderna Museet © 2021 Sam Francis Foundation, California / ADAGP, Paris, 2021

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