Located in our very own backyard, the Anderson Collection is a hidden gem. The museum devotes itself entirely to modern art, and houses paintings by renowned artists like Philip Guston, Richard Diebenkorn, and Wayne Thiebaud, to name a few. Yet, The Anderson is mostly credited for having a fascinating selection of Abstract Expressionist paintings.
Abstract Expressionism, also known as the New York School, was born soon after WWII, and welcomed themes of spontaneity and universal emotions. The movement is often thought of as being composed by two tendencies: Action Painting and Color Field Painting. In Action Painting, artists focused on the energetic, improvisational, and gestural application of paint on the canvas. On the other hand, through Color Field Painting, artists freed themselves from line and figuration, and instead opted for creating deep and vast areas of color. In both cases, artists found, developed, and established entirely new ways to produce statements that related to ideas and changes of the mid–20th century.
These are some of the most iconic paintings at The Anderson:
Lucifer, Jackson Pollock, 1947
Dubbed “Jack the Dripper” by Time magazine, Pollock is most famous for his iconic drip painting technique, in which he dripped, poured, and splattered paint onto a canvas spread on the floor. Aside from oil paint, Pollock tended to use industrial materials like gloss enamel, as well as cigarette butts, matches, and coins to imply its modernity. The artist, who revolutionized the art world through his innovative thought and technique, once professed, “It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atomic bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.” Lucifer, an early result of this experimentation, ended up in the chemist Grant Mark’s hands. Pollock began seeing him to deal with his alcoholism, and in 1952, gave it the painting to Mark as payment for his services. The title of the work, Lucifer, can allude to the morning star (“lux ferre” in Latin, meaning “light bringing”) or the fallen angel – in both cases, Pollock implies the depth and complexity of his struggling, troubled mind.
Pink and White over Red, Mark Rothko, 1957
Through his paintings, Rothko wished to express human emotion – “tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” As with many of the Abstract Expressionists, he started his artistic career leaning towards figuration but turned to abstraction soon after. Influenced by Nietzsche, he developed a signature style – cloudy rectangles in large, slightly vertical canvases – with which he hoped to evoke an intense spiritual feeling he called “the sublime.” Interestingly, Pink and White over Red hangs next to Rothko’s other work, Untitled (Black on Gray) which he painted later on in 1969. Despite their similar styles, the artist’s choice colors hint what perhaps were the highest and lowest points of his career; the 1950s provided were a period of great artistic prosperity but by 1969, he had developed health problems and had grown clinically depressed. Rothko took his own life only a year after, in 1970.
Woman Standing – Pink, Willem de Kooning, 1954-55
De Kooning was never fully able to depart from figuration. His signature style, thus, consists of geometrical shapes, often distorted and rendered using rough brushstrokes and vivid colors. The artist is mostly known for producing the “Woman” series, in which de Kooning uses the Action Painting technique to depict the female figure. More distinctively, Woman Standing – Pink, shows a woman wearing nothing but a bow. Looking at her shape, you can read de Kooning’s angular movements – in the triangular nose and legs, in the 5 camouflaged along her body – in lively colors. The result is a work that evokes a raw, childish sentiment yet captures Surrealist, Cubist, and Expressionists as influences.
1957–J No. 1 (PH–142), Clyfford Still, 1957
Still’s work brings together Action Painting and Color Field Painting to, in his own words, “merge life and death in fearful union.” Indeed, the textured, flame-like brushstrokes fill the canvas predominantly in contrasting bloody reds and charcoal blacks in such way that conveys conflict, discomfort, energetic struggle. But there are also lively touches of yellows and blues near the left edges, deliberately placed to be overlooked by the hurried viewer. Bright yet subtle, these details somewhat balance out the surrounding chaos. And as such, it speaks about Still’s view on life: he does not think of beauty and disaster as isolated conditions, but as constantly battling and sometimes even present within each other.
Approach, Helen Frankenthaler, 1962
Frankenthaler is one of the few acclaimed female Abstract Expressionists, although she refused to be thought of as a ‘female artist.’ Having dated famous art critic Clement Greenberg and married fellow Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell, she understood that bringing her gender and personal life into her art could be potential baggage. Frankenthaler stands out for inventing the color-stain technique, with which she created this piece. Placing an unprimed canvas on the floor, she would pour thin washes of paint, improvising to create figures that suggest often landscapes and other nature-inspired elements. Approach, for instance, resembles some sort of insect or landform. Around them, there are stains that result with age from working directly on the unprimed canvas. Despite being unintentional, they almost evoke the sensation of an aura.
Abstract Painting, Ad Reinhardt, 1966
Feigning simplicity, this might be the most easily dismissible painting in the collection. Reinhardt’s piece, along with the rest of his black paintings, appears to be a nothing more than a monochromatic square. Yet, upon closer look, one should discern different tones of black mapped onto a 3 x 3 grid. To achieve these matte shades of black, the artist would add amounts of red, green, or blue, and let the mixture sit for weeks. He would wait for the pigment to separate from the solvent, throw out the latter and proceed to paint with pure pigment. The result is a smooth, velvety surface so opaque that it seems to absorb one’s vision. Reinhardt’s inspiration can be attributed to two main sources: his opposition to the cult of the artist (think Pollock during the 1960s) and Eastern philosophy. To him, each of his black squares was “a pure, abstract, non–objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting – an object that is self-conscious (no consciousness), ideal, transcendental…” In other words, he represents the polar opposite of Pollock’s charged, attention-seeking drip paintings. Through its content and title, the work screams generic. But it is precisely its emptiness and generic quality that makes it a tool for mediation. Influenced by Eastern notions of color and absence and their relationship to meditation, Reinhardt meant for his work to be contemplated as a meditative exercise.
By: Daniela Chang Foxon
Photography by: Paolo Vera