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02/23/2022 06:00 AM

Breaking Down the Mythology Around Abstract Artists

Bone Music #1, 1949, pen, ink, and watercolor on handmade Asian paper, Dorothy Dehner. Yale University Art Gallery, Katharine Ordway Fund. Courtesy Dorothy Dehner Foundation for the Visual Arts

Casual museum-goers might be forgiven for thinking that representational art is a category entirely distinct from abstract art, two entirely different genres relegated to different rooms in an art gallery, created by two distinct sets of artists. Likewise, it might sometimes seem like representational art reigned supreme with its landscapes and portraits, for the most part, until the early to mid-20th century, when someone flipped a switch and then it was all about abstract art and works that include forms that resemble nothing like the observable world.

And it might be understandable if some of those of us who are not art experts might have borrowed the popular but clichéd notion of abstract artists as emotionally overwrought men tossing paint willy-nilly at a large, blank canvas.

Thanks to a recent, transformational gift to the Yale University Art Gallery, a new exhibit could go a long way toward disabusing us of some of those notions. It also will shed light on the work and artistic development of some extraordinary mid-century artists, says Keely Orgeman, the Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Yale University Art Gallery.

“It really starts to break down the mythology around the abstract artist as a maverick alone in his studio flinging paint,” Orgeman says of the new exhibit. “It also suggests many different ways of working and many different approaches to abstraction.”

Breadth, Variety

The exhibit, Midcentury Abstraction: A Closer Look, opens Friday, Feb. 25 when the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, will once again open to the general public after being closed for a second time due to the pandemic.

To ensure the health and safety of visitors and staff, and in accordance with Yale University's COVID-19 policies, "proof of vaccination (including a booster, if eligible) is required for entry for visitors five and older. All visitors 18 and older must also show a valid photo ID. Unvaccinated children under the age of five are eligible to visit. Everyone ages two and older are required to wear a mask while in the museum.  More information is available at

The other exhibits scheduled to open that day are Gold in America: Artistry, Memory, Power, which will run through July 10 and Recent Acquisitions, scheduled to run through June 26, which will focus on about 50 of the more than 1,000 works accessioned by the gallery in 2020 and 2021.

The Midcentury Abstraction exhibit “highlights the breadth and variety of practices in abstract art that took place around the middle of the 20th century,” and was inspired by a gift to the gallery from the Friday Foundation, which supports arts organizations as a way of honoring the legacy of the late collectors Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang. The exhibition includes six works from the recent gift, by Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, two artists who produced both representational and abstract art during their careers.

Works by Hannelore Baron, Lee Bontecou, Dorothy Dehner, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Louise Nevelson, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, George Miyasaki, Jesús Rafael Soto, Hedda Sterne, Zao Wou-ki, and other artists will be featured in the Midcentury Abstraction exhibit as well, with more than 50 works to be displayed in all, some of them from the recent gifts and others already in the gallery’s collections.

Movement From One to the Other

These are artists working at a time when the world was undergoing dramatic societal, technological, and scientific change. While the influence of these changes are often reflected in the art work, the exhibition is designed to challenge the idea that there was a clear linear trajectory from representation, or figuration, into abstraction, says Orgeman.

“You can see this very clearly from the examples we’ve chosen. Some artists started their career in the abstract mode and then moved out of abstraction into representation,” she says, and some went in the other direction. Either way, the movement from one to the other illuminates the artists’ process and work.

Kline is a great example, she says.

He started his career and spent a good part of his career working in a representational way. There is a painting by Kline in this exhibit, that came to the gallery by way of the recent gift, that is a representational portrait of the legendary ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, known as the God of Dance, dressed as the puppet Petruschka. Based on a photograph, it was painted in 1942.

Also in the exhibit is a related untitled study done in 1949, and another done in 1950. Kline made several versions of the final portrait, one of which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and another by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.

The works in the Yale exhibit, Orgeman says, "represent a transitional moment when Kline seems to be moving into a fully abstract mode. You start to see him produce these large scale black and white paintings for which he is famous . . . even while he is drawing upon his own work with figurative sketches."

An Open Invitation

Another work by Kline in the upcoming exhibit is a quick sketch drawing of a woman sitting in a rocking chair.

Orgeman says that Kline's sketch depicts his wife. When the viewer learns “that this was a drawing of the artist’s wife, there is a certain identification that happens when you think about the relationship between the artist and his wife,” she says, an understandable impulse on the part of the viewer.

Kline was married to the ballet dancer Elizabeth Parsons, who suffered from mental illness, similar to the schizophrenia and psychosis experienced by Nijinsky, in fact. While that may be of interest to the viewer, when it comes to the sketch of the woman in a rocking chair, it is not necessary to understand that information when it comes to appreciating the work.

Rather than just understanding the art, the viewer is also enticed into experiencing it.

“I think with abstract art, maybe there is an open invitation to identify that which the viewer feels from looking at the work.”

Still, the context provided by the exhibit allows the viewer to understand better how Kline created his work.

The Same Emotions, a Different Artistic Language

“You can see the shapes and lines translate into the abstract work that he did,” she says.

Orgeman says she has studied Kline’s work for years and it was not until she saw the recently donated works that she truly understood how he worked.

Initially it might appear as though “he’s making this work [his large-scale paintings] quickly, with broad sweeping brush strokes...we think he’s painting expressively, the way Jackson Pollock did. But that is not really what Kline is doing, and that is revealed through some of his sketches.”

Instead, his work is methodically sketched. And, while it might initially appear as though the white space is just blank, Orgeman says she now realizes that the white space is just as important as the black.

“It’s not as though he painted black over white. He’s painting slowly, methodically, to bring these two colors together in harmony. To be honest, I did not realize that about his practice, until I started looking closely at these works we are featuring.”

The work, inspiration of, and process of Rothko is also examined in the exhibit.

Rothko was inspired by and borrowed from, among other influences, Graeco-Roman history, architecture, art, tragic myths, and the human drama conveyed by those myths. He drew upon those traditions to create works such as an untitled oil painting on canvas that features his trademark stacked format, but this one includes heads stacked on waves.

In other works, he again uses the stacked format, but rather than stacking abstracted heads or waves, he’s stacking color one atop of the other to create his iconic color fields.

“So it’s interesting to see that transition and that he talks about the representational work and the abstract work in the same terms. In both cases, he’s really trying to evoke some basic human emotions. Initially he finds that Graeco-Roman tragedy was the basis for experiencing those emotions. But then he finds the style in which he feels he can evoke the same emotions, but in an abstract language.”

Going Deep

Orgeman says it was gratifying to work on the exhibit and develop it in collaboration with Elisabeth Hodermarsky, the Sutphin Family Curator of Prints and Drawings, and Gregor Quack, Ph.D. candidate, Department of the History of Art.

She adds that the exhibit is a great example of the way that the gallery collects work.

“Across departments we are trying to represent the breadth of an artist’s career to the extent that we can,” says Orgeman. “[W]e are able to introduce works from different moments in each artist’s career, and are really able to demonstrate to our audiences the variety of styles and techniques these artists used over decades. There’s so much more nuance, I think, to each artists’ practice than meets the eye, if you’re only looking at the most famous or iconic example” of the artists’ work.

The works by individual artists will not only inform each other, but the exhibit is set up in a way so that viewers will also be able to appreciate them and study them adjacent to the other artists. The exhibit, in that way, honors the recent gift from the Friday Foundation and the way that Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang collected works of art.

They collected them in depth.

“So we’ve tried to emulate that approach by showing each artist in greater depth than one finds when you encounter a single work of art,” says Orgeman.  "And it's not just for the sake of representing their stylistic range, but also for creating a context in which to understand their work relative to that of their contemporaries."

Editor's Note: This article was edited on Friday, Feb. 25 to update information about the museum's opening day, and to correct and clarify some quotes from Orgeman.

Untitled, 1959, welded steel, canvas, and screen, Lee Bontecou. Yale University Art Gallery, partial gift of Eileen and Michael Cohen and purchased with the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund. © Lee Bontecou, 2022
Untitled, 1941–42, oil on canvas, Mark Rothko. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Fire, 1972, lithograph, Sam Gilliam. Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with the aid of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Susan Morse Hilles Matching Fund. © 2022 Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collage No. 2, ca. 1957–65, collage; oil paint, paper towels, and a cigarette butt,on newspaper on prepared paperboard, Willem de Kooning. Yale University Art Gallery, Katharine Ordway Collection. © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York