The story is well known in art circles and taught to students in art schools. Fifty to sixty years ago, a group of painters in New York began to develop the first truly American style of art: abstract expressionism. As a result of their efforts, for the first time ever, art in this country became the world's leading aesthetic force. The names of the great abstract expressionists are written in the stars: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, among others. And of special interest to those in Denver is Clyfford Still, who will soon be the star of a downtown museum dedicated solely to him.
The standard early view went that abstract expressionism was developed by a select group of artists who lived in lower Manhattan and knew one another. Over the last couple of decades, however, that notion changed as scholars, researchers and especially art dealers came across material that qualified as being abstract expressionist, but was created by artists not heretofore included in the chosen group. Some, such as Vance Kirkland or Al Wynne, worked in Colorado. Others had associations with New York itself, but for some reason fell through the cracks and were forgotten.
It's an artist from this latter category who is the focus of Ary Stillman: Play of Light: The Journey of an American Modernist, a gorgeous and informative exhibit that stays up for one more week at the Singer Gallery in the Mizel Arts & Culture Center.
Stillman lived in New York during the relevant period, but poor health forced him to move to Mexico in search of warmer temperatures. Unfortunately, this also led to a cold, hard fact: Stillman's oeuvre was lost to the winds of time. That changed forty years after he died, however, with the publication of a monograph titled "Ary Stillman: From Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism," which led directly to this exhibit at the Singer.
The show isn't arranged chronologically, but it's possible for viewers to follow the story of Stillman's artistic development.
Born in Russia in 1891, Stillman moved to Iowa in 1907, and there are two dark and archly conservative portraits from 1908 in the show. He moved to New York in 1919, but left for Paris a few years later to continue his art training, then returned to New York in 1933. The experience in Europe transformed his traditionalism into post-impressionism, a style that bears some relationship to abstract expressionism, in particular the taste for lively brush work; still, it is not typically seen as being among the origins of the cutting-edge movement. In fact, Stillman was a pretty old-fashioned painter at the time, even though his work comes across as striking and sensational.
"Coney Island (Three Horses)" is really eye-catching, with Stillman's smudgy paint laying out the crowded scene of revelers, three of whom are on horseback, but it could have been done decades before its date, which is 1936.
In the mid-1940s, however, Stillman made what looks to be a sudden change of direction, becoming an abstract expressionist. Neither the show nor the catalogue reveals how this happened, because there aren't any transition pieces. Apparently, he woke up one morning and just started doing it.
Most of the abstract works in the show are done on paper, with Stillman using embossing techniques to establish meandering or zigzagging lines in fields of charcoal or pastel. These embossed lines take on an all-over character, filling the entire picture plane. He also uses a linear substructure in the paintings from this period, as in "Gold and Blue," from 1948. Singer director Simon Zalkind, who curated the show, pointed to this work as a definitive example of Stillman at the height of his painterly powers.
From my point of view, it is Stillman's pieces done over the next fifteen years, including his late work from Mexico, where he moved in 1957, that are his greatest accomplishments. These are calligraphic abstracts with what look like scribbled writing all over them. They are inspired by Mayan motifs as translated and substantially changed by Stillman.
The Singer Gallery is a Jewish institution, and though Zalkind doesn't exclusively show the work of artists of that faith and heritage, you've got to say, as proved by this Stillman show, that he does a remarkable job of finding them.
Another well-known story from the annals of American art history is the one where a group of upstart youngsters working in New York in the late '50s and early '60s turned abstract expressionism inside out by coming up with its antithesis, pop art. The late work of one of the true pioneers of the pop art movement is front and center in the large solo Robert Rauschenberg: The Lotus Series, at Robischon Gallery.
Rauschenberg was born in 1921, arrived in New York around 1950, and soon began to change the face of art. He combined found materials to make hybrids of paintings and sculptures, orchestrated performances and built installations. Perhaps most significantly, he juggled lithography techniques and photographic ones to come up with his signature style of using recognizable imagery in non-objective arrangements. In other words, appropriated images became stand-ins for forms.
The pieces at Robischon are of this type. The "Lotus Series" suite includes ten inkjet pigment prints, all with photogravure. There are also two pieces from "The Lotus Bed" series. Each has an image of a lotus flower, a potent and ubiquitous symbol in China. The suite and the additional pieces were printed by master printer Bill Goldston of Universal Limited Art Editions, an outfit Rauschenberg was associated with for decades. And they will be the last, since the artist died last year shortly after they were completed.
For these works, Rauschenberg assembled photos of China that he took during trips there in the 1980s. The images of the photos have been arranged in constructivist patterns establishing both strong horizontal and vertical divisions. There are some overlapping images, but for the most part, Rauschenberg simply laid the photographic images side by side and top to bottom. A few are picturesque, with romantic images of classic Chinese scenes, like lily ponds and old temples. But others show the distinctly different mood of modernizing China, like "Lotus II," with the lotus blossom floating over a pair of new tires; it is pure Rauschenberg. There's both a free-associational quality to the selection of the images and an underlying narrative about change in China.
Robischon has paired the exhibit with a small group show called China: A New Year, which is dedicated to contemporary Chinese artists. The gallery has been a national leader in promoting new art from China during the past several years.
The viewing room is fairly small, but the exhibit is rich in content, with the work of no fewer than five different artists, a couple of whom are represented by monumental pieces. Xiong Lijun is responsible for a pair of large oil and acrylic paintings that feature garishly toned-up colors and a style that comes out of both pop art and animation. This same stylistic combination is seen in "Miss L" and "Mr. W," oversized figures in fiberglass by Yu Fan. The male and female figures are childlike adults that are gaunt and attenuated. Adding a somewhat edgy element, they are nude below the waist, with anatomically accurate detailing.
The offerings at Robischon, which have another week in their runs, are definitely worthwhile, but the Rauschenberg show is more than that. It's an important exhibit that's definitely one of the top attractions in the Denver art world right now.