During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, critics who followed avant-garde trends often measured the success of figurative works in relation to abstraction. Narrow in scope, this measurement overlooked artists’ own positions about the abstracted body, which ranged from excitement to ambivalence to anxiety. Facing Abstraction: Refiguring the Body in the Twentieth Century, drawn from the Neuberger Museum of Art’s permanent collection, combines selected artists’ writings with objects to offer a fresh perspective on the relationship between abstraction and figuration.
In the early twentieth century, avant-garde artists, such as George Braque and Pablo Picasso, became increasingly ambivalent about distinctions between abstraction and representation. At the same time, the emergence of work that held no recognizable imagery for the viewer prompted many artists experimenting with abstraction to insist on maintaining recognizable form. By the 1940s, artists such as Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Mark Rothko, and David Smith were not only advocates of subject matter but also suggested that art could not exist without it. Bluntly, Smith observed, “There is no such thing as truly abstract . . . Man always has to work from his life.” During the next decade, as abstraction was pit against representation by critics, many artists painting the figure felt conflicted as their works became suspect. Writing about his own return to the figure in the 1950s, Willem de Kooning observed, “It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint, today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear that I have to follow my desires.”
Facing Abstraction is drawn from the Neuberger Museum of Art’s permanent collection, best known for its 1940s and 1950s American paintings assembled by its founder and patron, Roy R. Neuberger. This exhibition highlights, not only extraordinary works from that core collection, but also some of the Museum’s impressive modern and postwar paintings, prints, sculptures, and ceramics by artists from around the world.
Facing Abstraction is on view January 15-July 16, 2006.
Curated by Tracy Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., Adjunct Curator, Neuberger Museum of Art and Assistant Professor, Art History, Purchase College, State University of New York, with assistance from Adrienne Battaglino, Curatorial Intern, Neuberger Museum of Art.
Support for the presentation of Facing Abstraction is provided by the Westchester Arts Council, with funds from Westchester County government, and the Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art.