When thinking of painters like Jackson Pollock and Hans Hofmann, most people imagine a lot of splashed paint and seemingly random color patterns. Take a look at the new abstract expressionist exhibition at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, however, and the splashing becomes “action painting” and the random patterns “color field.” Even without the fancy terminology, the impact of the paintings on exhibit is impossible to ignore.
The exhibit, entitled “Impact: Expression in Abstraction,” is an exploration of the central themes and styles of the abstract expressionist movement. This school of art is defined by the artist’s discovery of self in the act of art and a pivotal change in the concepts of expression and representation. As an artist creates such a painting, his or her emotions and spontaneous expressions are physically recorded on the canvas.
The three rooms of the Muscarelle’s gallery each represent a separate integral characteristic of the movement. In the section on color field, viewers can connect to the emotions of the artist through specific blocks of color, in the same way that two people can experience the same smell, yet each be reminded of his or her own memories.
Similarly, the section on action painting highlights works that have been splashed or dribbled into existence. This style celebrates art for the sake of art. Featured in this section is William Barrell’s piece “Untitled,” which contains finger tracings, swirls made with his hands and textured layering. Also featured is the high-energy, Pollock-esque work “Untitled” by Jean-Paul Riopelle. In both paintings, this spontaneous style creates a powerful combination of emotion and action that speaks a collective visual language.
The last section explores the use of juxtaposition in a variety of forms. “Color Poem No. 1,” by Hans Hofmann, is featured in this room, as well as several dark-light prints and pieces that highlight extreme textural differences, such as Norman Carton’s “Untitled.”
The exhibition also features a variety of media, incorporating sculpture, lithographs and prints. Through this wide range, it is easy to see the expansive nature of the movement and its transformation from a style to a philosophy. The textured brass and corten steel pieces by Lila Katzen are notable examples that truly complete the exhibition.
To accompany the viewer’s visual experience, music is available for download at the front desk. This playlist includes pieces which enhance the emotional connection sought by the abstract expressionist movement. Although most of the music pre-dates the art on display, it challenged the artistic standards of its time in the same way.
The one chronological exception on the playlist is John Cage’s piece “Mysterious Adventure,” which accompanies the section on color field. Cage was chosen for his development of the prepared piano which, like abstract art, is altered from its traditional form to inspire something new.
The rest of the music is classical in genre and specific to each section. Compositions with lively tempos, accelerated melodies and hurried transitions are included to highlight the palpable energy of the action paintings. Similarly, sharp staccato rhythms and sudden transitions in volume and tempo illustrate the visual opposition of the section on juxtaposition.
The exhibition itself is as unique as the paintings it showcases. With the event run completely by student curators, and iPods in the hands of its visitors, the Muscarelle has never seen an exhibition quite like this before. Stretching the limits, of course, is completely in the spirit of abstract expressionism.
The risks taken here prove to be worth it. Everything that this exhibition attempts to accomplish, it does. The arrangement of the paintings is intelligent and informative, and a wide range of works is incorporated. With so much variety, the viewer is constantly engaged as he or she moves through the exhibit. However, the best part of this exhibit is not the paintings or the information – it’s the music. Having an audio element in the gallery turns a simple visit into an experience. Just like the movement itself, the exhibition envelops its visitors and inspires in them deeply individual reactions to its content.