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From Abstract Expression to Colored Planes

Mar 16 2013 – Nov 9 2014

Seattle Art Museum

Third Floor Galleries

Early in the 1940s, artists in New York began to develop an expressive, abstract style of painting that was a stark departure from previous ideas, both artistically and historically. Up until World War II, the center of artistic production in the West had been Paris, and artists from around Europe, the United States and South America had flocked there to study and to work. This changed profoundly in the 1940s. Inspired in part by the aesthetic vocabulary of Surrealism and a growing interest in psychoanalysis and the unconscious, artists in New York developed bold new practices.

The paintings by Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner provide a glimpse of the energy and movement of what became known as Abstract Expressionism. Abstract painting continued to dominate the artistic discourse in the 1950s and early 1960s, but the concerns began to shift from the tactility and energy of the painted gesture to a preoccupation with emphasizing the flatness of the canvas. In works by Helen Frankenthaler this is achieved by thinned paint that saturates the canvas and melds with the support.

By contrast, the “Hard-Edge” works by Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Al Held pose different questions. Al Held’s thickly painted The Yellow X pushes against the edges of the canvas as a bold abstract form, while the triangular wedges of irregular size pierce the painting from all sides and suggest spatial depth. Similarly, Stella’s shaped canvases engage in a subtle play with perspective space. The paintings’ irregular shapes place them at the juncture of painting and sculptural object, and position them in relation to the surrounding architecture.

–Catharina Manchanda, Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

The Yellow X, 1965, Al Held, American, 1928-2005, acrylic on canvas, 144 1/2 × 178 in., Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright, 2013.11. Courtesy of the Al Held Foundation and Cheim & Read, New York.