What You See Is What You See: American Abstraction After 1950

Friday, November 28, 2014 – Sunday, March 15, 2015

What you see is what you see
Artist Frank Stella, 1964

Post-Painterly Abstraction is a term coined by art critic Clement Greenberg in 1964. With this term he noted a move away from the grand gestural abstractions of the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters. Greenberg characterized Post-Painterly Abstraction as “linear in design, bright in color, lacking in detail and incident, and open in composition. Most importantly, however, it was anonymous in execution.” (Justin Wolfe: The Art Story Foundation.) Or as artist Frank Stella defined it, “a picture is a flat surface with paint on it — nothing more.”

Hans Hofmann was an Abstract Expressionist and a noted teacher; he is regarded as one of the first theorists of Color Field Painting, introducing it to his many students. Two other artist/teachers who were influential in teaching color theory and practice were Josef Albers and Ilya Bolotowsky. Both of those artists taught at Black Mountain College where Kenneth Noland, among others, studied. Numerous artists, including George Bireline and Maud Gatewood, spent time in New York City in the 1950s where these new directions in abstraction were being explored and discussed.

Stained Color Field Abstraction was pioneered by Helen Frankenthaler.She diluted her paints and poured them onto canvases often lying on a floor or table. Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland both developed their own unique soaking and staining techniques. Noland and others living in Washington, DC formed what is known as the Washington Color School, pursuing a submovement of Color Field Painting employing stripes, bands of color and other repetitive forms of color.

Where Stained Color Field Abstraction may reflect an evolution of the gestures of Abstract Expressionism, there are at least two additional color field schools that can be viewed as a rebellion against the Abstract Expressionists: Hard Edged Abstraction and the related Optical Art. In both approaches artists laid down flat fields of color. Some artists like Josef Albers and Richard Anuskiewicz worked with very precise color combinations while others claimed that their color choices were random.

Optical Art, or Optical Perception Art, also began in the 1960s. The term first appeared in print in Time magazine in October 1964 in response to Julian Stanczak’s show “Optical Paintings” at the Martha Jackson gallery. Two of the leading artists in this area are Richard Anuskiewicz and Julian Stanczak. Both artists studied with Josef Albers at Yale. Op Art emphasized a more mechanical approach to painting and at times reintroduced the illusion of depth and movement.

Hard Edged Abstraction, or Geometric Abstraction, refers to paintings in which abrupt transitions are found between delineated color areas The term was coined by writer, curator and Los Angeles Times art critic Jules Langsner, along with Peter Selz, in 1959 to describe the work of painters from California. By the 1960s this approach had become widespread. Ellsworth Kelly, Ilya Bolotowsky and many others explored clearly defined forms (sometimes including shaped canvases), clean lines and clear color. While critics saw these many simultaneous categories of Abstraction as significant and distinct, it is difficult to narrowly define this generation of artistic exploration. Many artists explored a wide range of approaches and could be included in one or more categories. The pursuit they shared was that they relied less on gesture and form and more on surrounding and enriching us with the expressive qualities of color.

This exhibition is organized by the Asheville Art Museum.


View selected works in the exhibition »