Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ann Temkin Abstract Expressionist Q&A in National Post Today

As many now well know, this past weekend saw the opening of the only international stop for MoMA's "Abstract Expressionist New York" at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The show is scaled down from the original—about 75% the size of the central MoMA outing "The Big Picture," I was told, and also lacking the collary exhibitions "Rock Paper Scissors" and "Ideas Not Theories" (though some materials from these latter two shows were integrated into the AGO display).

Last Wednesday as the exhibition was previewing to the press, I got to speak with Ann Temkin, MoMA's chief curator of painting and sculpture, about the show. The resulting condensed Q&A is out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q Are Abstract Expressionists really all that special? Abstraction has existed for centuries in indigenous and Islamic art, and expressiveness is something we look for in most art.

A One of the things you're bringing out is that Eurocentric attitudes are what dictate us thinking of this movement as unique. There are links the artists would've very much acknowledged to non-Western or ancient art that had this same kind of ambition to express the soul. So you could say one of the things that's important about this movement is, in fact, its non-uniqueness in a global sense. What these artists were aiming for was something that, for what would've been thought of as "primitive" peoples at that time, would've gone without saying—that art expressed their deepest, profoundest beliefs, fears and wishes. What these artists were doing was marrying that to a European artistic tradition, which was something on canvas that got stretched and put on a wall.

Q So is a better term needed than "Abstract Expressionist"? The direct translation ain't helpful.

A These artists struggled quite a bit with that question and they all had their various, equally inadequate suggestions. Our acoustiguide in New York opened with clips of artists saying things along these lines—"Well, I'm not an Abstract Expressionist!" "My paintings aren't Abstract Expressionist." "What is Abstract Expressionist? It means nothing to me."—just to set the stage that it's not a very useful term.

Later on we discuss Rothko's fear of fame, how to look at an Ab Ex painting and more. To read the rest, I encourage seeking out a print copy of the Post, as there's a reproduction of a really nice Joan Mitchell painting in the spread. For a text-only version today, you can also check out this link over at the Post.

(Image of Joan Mitchell's Ladybug 1957 from the AGO and MoMA)


pixo said...

This is a great interview - bringing this group of art from high up in the sky down to earth. I especially like the answer to the last question, which is the way I like to enjoy art. Thank you.

Leah Sandals said...

Thanks Pixo. I found her illuminating to speak with as well. A letter-writer to the Post objected that thsi interview oversimplified these artists, and that reading is needed to fully appreciate them:


I had never expected this to be a contentious issue, but it's good to know there's a range of points of view on this one!

Also, I think Temkin's point is that reading will of course help one's appreciation, but connecting with the works can be also attempted (and fulfilled) directly as well.

pixo said...

2 weeks ago, I was in Hong Kong, and coincidentally, there was the Hong Kong Art Fair. Wondering through the galleries, an abstract painting caught my attention. By that time, my eye balls have already been bombarded with way too many art works, and starting to get numb. I do not know why I like that particular painting, but it just feel nice to look at. It is not colourful, and there are no clear forms and shapes that the eyes can grab on to. But somehow, it just feels nice to look at. When I walk closer to check out the label, it is a de Kooning. I was not expecting a de Kooning at the Art Fair, but there it is. I have not studied the life of de Kooning, nor do I know anything about how he might have struggled to arrive at the way he painted. I cannot articulate why I like what I see. But there is just something about that painting that feels nice to look at. I suspect if I read more about de Kooning, it might help me appreciate him more as a person, or understand more on his approach to art making. However, I suspect the additional knowledge will not improve how my eyes and my mind have "tasted" this particular piece of work.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Pixo,

Thanks for your articulation of why it's often valuable to look at the work itself and figure out what one is drawn to with the eyes, rather than look necessarily at the name of the artist or their life story right away.

I agree that more reading helps me understand art better, but it's also key to simply look and figure out (or experience) art visually too!