Kumi Sugaï, June (1957), oil on canvas, 63-5/8″ 51″; courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
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Maybe it’s the Guggenheim or maybe it’s me, but Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1949–1960 seems a bore. “Seems” is used here as a critical hedge: The exhibition includes an inescapable array of artists and some stunning works. But the problem—or part of the problem—is how many of the works aren’t stunning, but merely diverting or symptomatic of the time. Art of Another Kind isn’t intended to be a definitive retrospective of an era—roughly speaking, the decade in which Abstract Expressionism achieved Grand Manner status. The curatorial focus, rather, is on one institution’s accounting of the avant-garde and, as such, is both defined and limited by the museum’s permanent collection. All the same, certain artists are conspicuous in their absence and too many of those present-and-accounted-for are represented by near misses, transitional pieces, or out-and-out failures. A Pollock drip piece from the late 1940s, a congested disaster of a painting, opens the exhibition and serves as an augury for the mishmash that follows.
Art of Another Kind charts the years during which James Johnson Sweeney became the Guggenheim’s director, following on the heels of Hilla Rebay, the original steward of “The Museum of Non-Objective Painting.” Rebay was pivotal in establishing the collection, but her volatile temperament and curatorial quirks garnered a wealth of ill will. (One critic stated that the collection would be better served by distributing it to other museums than to suffer Rebay’s eccentricities.) Sweeney was hired in 1952, ousting Rebay as the museum’s second director, and he proved more amenable to “paintings with an object”—that is to say, recognizable forms. Rebay had consigned Chagall, Delaunay, Seurat, Klee, and Modigliani to the storage racks for being insufficiently mystical; Sweeney dusted them off for public display. He saw to the inauguration of the Frank Lloyd Wright building in 1959—a project Rebay had set into motion. Upon the museum’s opening, “the unseen hostess” sent Sweeney a telegram berating him for the Guggenheim’s newfound emphasis on “aftermath trash.”
Alberto Burri, Composition (1953), oil, gold paint and glue on burlap and canvas, 86 cm. x 100.4 cm.; courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
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The aftermath of what, you might wonder. The Second World War, certainly, but more to the point of Rebay’s ire, the “art of another kind” that gained momentum in its wake. The phrase comes from Michel Tapie, a French critic who sought to define and promote “antigeometric, antinaturalistic, and nonfigurative” art that emphasized “spontaneity, looseness of form, and the irrational.” The New York School was the locus of this phenomenon, but it had related currents the world over, including European tangents like CoBrA (an amalgam of painters from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam), a loose federation of artists lumped under the rubric Art Informel and the Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet. Tapie found a like-mind in Sweeney, who was eager to prove the Guggenheim more vital than the “cultish temple” Rebay had established. Even as Sweeney beefed up the museum’s collection of early Modernist art, he sought out new work, regularly visiting artists’ studios and taking note of developments beyond Manhattan.
Art of Another Kind skews toward the hometown team—given the New York School’s importance as cultural arbiter, how could it not?—but it also evinces the non-parochial nature of Sweeney’s eye. De Kooning is here, as are Adolph Gottlieb, Clyfford Still, Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline; so, too, are lesser names (if not necessarily lesser talents) like William Baziotes, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, Grace Hartigan, and Conrad Marca-Relli. But then there’s a considerable array of non-Americans, many of whom will be new to casual museumgoers: among them, Karel Appel from Holland and Pierre Alechinsky from Belgium; the Frenchmen Pierre Soulages, Alfred Manessier, and Georges Mathieu; Antoni Tapies from Spain; and Japan’s Kumi Sugai. Object-oriented wall pieces by Jean Tinguely, Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, and a pre-combine Robert Rauschenberg hint at how the conceit of Action Painting eventually led to Performance Art and Conceptualism.
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Not everything on display is gestural in nature—Ellsworth Kelly’s rarefied elegance is on display, as are the post-Matissean caprices of Carla Accardi—and there are sculptures here and there, though not in such abundance that you’d notice. But mostly Art of Another Kind is tepid and homogenous, at once overheated and underwhelming. Granted, one generation’s “tastebreakers” (as Sweeney had it) inevitably became the reigning taste. We can’t blame history for taming yesterday’s outrages. If the contemporary Guggenheim wanted to prove that Sweeney was ahead of the globalist curve, it doesn’t do so in a way that’s aesthetically convincing. If anything, insisting on the international nature of post-war abstraction only emphasizes how integral the American spirit was to “art of another kind.” Notwithstanding the calligraphic urgency of Alechinsky’s Vanish (1959) or the taut constructivism of Jorge Oteiza, the non-New York-based art at the Guggenheim works best, if at all, as period pieces—outer-borough period pieces, one is tempted to say. Turns out cultural capitals, however temporary, are for real. In its own inadvertent way, Art of Another Kind is an advertisement for the benefits of localism.
© 2012 Mario Naves
Originally published in the September 2012 edition of The New Criterion.