The non-abstract teachings of a group of “irascibles”

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An interesting exhibition opens our gaze in Madrid towards an important event in the deployment of art in the USA. after the end of World War II. It was the time when the so-called New York School was configured, focused on the affirmation of Abstract Expressionism, which would end up reaching an important trail of recognition in 20th century art.

The significant event was a letter of protest against the criteria of organization and exclusion in a sample of the Metropolitan, American painting today: 1950, December of that year. The letter was signed by 18 painters and 10 sculptors. In response, a report was prepared in Life magazine, in which a photograph of Nina Leen where 15 of the 18 painters appeared played an important role. Only “painters,” and no “sculptor,” because the reason for the protest was an exhibition of “painting.” This photo would reach an important later relevance, with replicas and reworkings from 1985 to 2009, in which the importance of the protest in the artistic medium is underlined.

Only two women
Let us point out that among the ten signing sculptors there were only two women: Louise Bourgeois and Mary Callery. And that among all painters, only one creator: Hedda Sterne. Some of these painters would achieve great recognition, such as De Kooning, Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Pollock or Rothko. The others would have a more oscillating valuation.

The Life post was titled “An irascible group of advanced artists has led the fight against exposure.” Hence the title of the exhibition in Madrid, in which Leen’s photo is presented in large format, a work by each of the 18 painters who signed the letter, and an important space for documents.

Life noted that the then director of the Metropolitan, Francis Henry Taylor, had compared the signatories to “flat-chested pelicans strutting over the intellectual wastelands.” What had they written in the letter? The “irascibles” drew attention to the fact that the selection of works in the exhibition gave “no hope that a fair proportion of advanced art” was included. To later underline “the historical fact that, in approximately one hundred years, only advanced art has made any important contribution to civilization.”

Not stand still
Therein lies the central nucleus of artistic processes: either stay still, or go forward. And that is what this exhibition raises, that is: the 18 works of the «irascibles», together with the precise reconstruction of what happened then, in addition to the question of what should be the attitude of creators towards museums and artistic institutions.

Some of these painters would achieve great recognition, such as De Kooning, Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Pollock or Rothko. The others would have a more oscillating valuation

In short, an important consequence is drawn from that specific event: good practices in museums with the art that is done in the present time require an open, receptive attitude and away from the exclusive canons. Something that began to break through with the demand for the full freedom of each artist in Romanticism, and which would later intensify with the avant-garde. In the arts, knowing what has happened in the past, one must always look ahead.

“Zot” (1949), by Willem de Kooning “The irascible: painters against the museum. New York, 1950 »
Juan March Foundation. Madrid. C / Castelló, 77. Curators: M. Fontán, I. Vallejo, B. R. Collins and B. Cordero. Until june 7th .

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