Mid-Century abstract art feature of exhibit at Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Like the U.S. dollar, air travel and space satellites, abstract art encircled the globe or at least the capitalist West during the mid‐20th century. Whether with lush brushwork or hard, geometric edges, it was for a time the dominant form of avant‐garde art.
From some, abstraction symbolized the improvements of modern life — the technological and industrial wonders transforming how humans lived. For others, abstraction was yet another wave of cultural colonialism from Europe and America that displaced existing artistic practices.
“Going Global: Abstract Art at Mid-Century,” an exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on view from Tuesday through Sept. 25, shows just how far abstraction reached and some of the forms it took during the Cold War, when glossy art magazines, proliferating fairs and commercial aviation brought an international art world into being, according to James Glisson, the museum’s curator of contemporary art.
This exhibition is made possible through the support of the SBMA Women’s Board.
Featured are approximately 35 works by artists born in Argentina, Colombia, Germany, France, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Peru, the United Kingdom, Venezuela and the United States — all of which come from the museum’s permanent collection.
“It runs the gamut of mediums, from painting and sculpture to photography and lithography. Some artists even invented new mediums, including forms of kinetic art that appear to change as a spectator moves,” said Mr. Glisson.
The presentation includes familiar names, such as Isamu Noguchi, Bridget Riley, Pierre Soulages and Kenzo Okada, who arrived from Japan in 1949 and showed with Betty Parsons, one of the leading gallerists of the 1950s.
Edward Chávez, a muralist for the Federal Art Project in the 1930s, reconfigures the desert as a mosaic of earth tones and bright colors that might be mesas, dry riverbeds or adobe buildings in his painting, “Elemental Landscape.”
“His dazzling abstraction refutes the pernicious myth of an ‘empty’ desert by evoking the millennia of human habitation before colonization, “ Mr. Gillson said.
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva is well known in France where she lived for 60 years. Her elegant blue and gray paintings suggest bustling cities or agricultural landscapes.
Another abstract artist with a limited reputation outside of Europe is Ernst Wilhelm Nay. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art owns a brilliantly colored abstraction of his that was shown in the German Pavilion of the 1956 Venice Biennale.
To make sense of the sprawling topic of global abstraction, the exhibition is divided into four sections: “Op Art,” “Layers,” “Gestural Abstraction” and “Signs & Symbols.”
“ ‘Op Art,’ short for Optical Art, was an international phenomenon in the 1960s that excited the public but was met with derision from critics. The artists wanted to use optical effects to break through the barriers of culture and history to create art that reached directly into the mind of the viewer,” said Mr. Gillson.
Bridget Riley’s painting “Annul” from 1965 fades to white toward the center, as if being erased. Yaacov Agam uses a corrugated colored surface in “New Year, III,” which appears to change as a viewer moves. Artists from Latin America used optical illusions or prompted viewers to move around to take in an artwork under varying conditions.
“Going Global” has dazzling examples of works by Jesús Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz‐Diez, Rogelio Polesell and Eduardo Mac Entyre.
“The ‘Layers’ section considers artworks that depict shallow spaces and fractured or jigsaw‐puzzle shaped forms, a visual strategy reflecting the legacy of cubism,” Mr. Gillson said. “Photographs by Kansuke Yamamoto and André Kertész are in a dialogue with paintings by Ben Nicholson, Gunther Gerzso and Mathias Goeritz . The museum’s holdings of Japanese modernist woodblock prints are also part of the conversation, including an exquisite print by Hiroyuki Tajima.
“Gestural Abstraction” contains energetic paintings that hold an emotional charge, including some pieces by Soulages, Nay, Fernando de Szyszlo and Matsumi Kanemitsu.
“The final section, ‘Signs & Symbols,’ contains artists who use symbols, such as rows, road signs and written language,” Mr. Gillson said. “These artists are less about visual abstractions than the philosophical and linguistic ones that shape language, thought and how humans come to understand the world.”