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Defying Gravity at The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum

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Lynda Benglis' "Corner Piece," courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy photo

Lynda Benglis' "Corner Piece," courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy photo

Published on: Monday, February 17, 2014

Wanda Jackson, Sentinel Arts Reporter

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and to celebrate the museum is offering an expanded view of Color Field painting.

Drawn from the Hirshhorn's collection, the exhibition titled "Gravity's Edge" explores the force of gravity in artistic production and focuses on increasing attention paid to the edge as a compelling aspect of the structure and perception of an artwork.

Spanning the period 1959 to 1978 and featuring works by canonical East Coast Color Field painters such as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, the exhibition includes paintings and works on paper by West Coast painter Sam Francis and self-described "abstract phenomenist" Paul Jenkins, as well as sculptures by Lynda Benglis and Anne Truitt. The exhibit opened February 7 and runs through June 15.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a generation of American abstract painters rejected the painterly emphasis of Abstract Expressionism, eliminating the primacy of self-expression and the effects of the brush.

A pivotal figure in that generation of artists, Frankenthaler pioneered the staining of large fields of color into raw, unprimed canvas. Her huge colorful paintings look like gigantic watercolors, but are in fact painted with oils & acrylics. Working directly on unprepared canvas, she would dilute the oil paint with turpentine (later she switched to acrylic paint), causing it to soak into the canvas – a technique called “soak stain.”

"Her structures and shapes were open, controlled by natural forces while also describing them. Her paint and canvas became one surface. This was a big deal back in the day," wrote New York art critic Jerry Saltz in his essay about Frankenthaler for New York magazine (December 2011). 

Represented in the Hirshhorn exhibit, Frankenthaler's work titled "Indian Summer" is a nearly eight-foot square canvas characterized by stacked bands of brown, blue-violet and deep pink acrylics.

It was Frankenthaler who inspired Noland and Louis.  

Noland--the best-known exponent of Color Field painting-- explores in depth several fundamental forms: concentric circles, diamonds and horizontal stripes. "Dusk" from his chevron paintings, is characteristic of the importance of shape (in this case a nested group of vees) as neither a property of the stretched canvas nor of any depicted object, but as an assertive entity unto itself.

Louis, working in a studio so small that he would never see most of his paintings stretched and displayed, manipulated his canvases by hand, guiding rivulets of thinned acrylic as they ran down the fabric, soaking into its fibers. His "Unfurled" series features bands of color streaming from the left and right sides of the canvas into the unbroken expanse of the vast, untouched middle. His "Delta Theta" will be joined for the first time at the museum by "Gamma Pi," a recent acquisition that has just undergone conservation.

Jenkins, an artist not commonly grouped with Color Field painters, illustrates in works such as "Phenomena Reverse Spell" that paint is a physical entity with weight and momentum. He used one of his favorite tools, an ivory knife, to create luminous sheets of color.

Benglis' puddle-thin sculpture, "Corner Piece," is a solidified swirl of latex paint that seemingly flows out from the corner formed by two walls. It offers a radically different perspective on the physicality of color, the paint being both subject to gravity as it dried and shaped by its relation to the hard edges that surround it.

Francis, an artist who showed and worked often in Europe and Japan, became known for an individual style of abstraction characterized by exuberant cell-like forms. The ribald, punning title of "Blue Balls" -- a reference to the artist's recuperation from renal tuberculosis -- belies the weightless disposition of blue forms that appear to float outward from the center of the canvas.

Truitt's "Night Naiad" takes the exhibition's expanded consideration of Color Field painting into three full dimensions. One of her well-known abstract columns tests perception by engaging both mind and body. The emotional impact, notes Truitt, "depends on memories accumulated as one walks around the sculpture."

Ultimately "Gravity's Edge" does not reinforce an art historical divide between gestural and geometric abstraction, rather it proposes a heightened sculptural and conscious sensibility that connects painting across diverse media and geographic regions.

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