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Abstract Now and Then 

February 16, 2011 - April 17, 2011

Daniel Higgs: Morph Traits n. 36, 2008; gouache on paper; 8 7/8 x 12 in.

Abstract images have been part of human culture since the earliest instances of mark making. Over the centuries abstraction has played various roles in visual representation, from decorative to symbolic, spiritually expressive to purely formal. It has existed in different cultures and has alternated and coexisted with more pictorial and naturalistic forms of imagery.

Ever since the early 1960s, when the renowned Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann provided the funds for the construction of the museum’s current home, as well as a remarkable gift of forty-seven of his own paintings, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive has had a special commitment to collecting and presenting works of twentieth-century, and now twenty-first-century, abstract art. The museum’s founding director, Peter Selz, followed by subsequent directors and curators, acquired works that provide context for the Hofmann paintings and extend the museum’s representation of diverse approaches to the subtle and complex phenomenon of abstract art. The two related presentations which combine to form Abstract Now and Then consider abstract painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture in two recent periods: Abstract Then (in Gallery 6) comprises pieces from 1940 through 1985 and Abstract Now (in Gallery 5) works made between 1985 and 2010. Both exhibitions draw entirely from BAM/PFA’s permanent collection and feature a large number of recent acquisitions.

Abstract Then presents several of the museum’s exceptional Abstract Expressionist works, including paintings and works on paper by Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Sam Francis, and Jay DeFeo. Representing the Minimalist tendency are sculptures and two-dimensional works by Robert Irwin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Ellsworth Kelly, and Barnett Newman. Works on paper by Lee Mullican, Eleanor Antin, and Carl Andre, among others, touch on Surrealist and Conceptual trends in postwar abstraction. Also on display is one of BAM/PFA’s most important late twentieth-century works, Eva Hesse’s monumental wall piece, Aught, which complements Eva Hesse: Studiowork, an exhibition on the artist’s small-scale sculptures on view in Gallery 3 through April 10.

Abstract Now highlights the diverse ways in which earlier tendencies in abstraction have been reinterpreted, challenged, and reborn by artists of a younger generation. A number of these artists, such as Suzan Frecon and Rudolf De Crignis, extend the Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist legacies with investigations into pure form, color, and material. Chris Duncan, Rosie Lee Tompkins, Xylor Jane, and the collaborative team of Oliver Halsman Rosenberg and Alexander Kori Girard invoke the meditative and symbolic aspects of abstraction, with reference to diverse spiritual traditions. For many artists today, abstraction coexists with figuration by incorporating recognizable images or by utilizing everyday and found materials; this approach is evident in works on view by Ron Nagle, Jim Drain, and Kyle Ranson and Daniel Higgs. In the eclectic environment of today’s visual art, abstraction has become one tool among many for capturing the subtle currents of the artist’s imagination.

Lawrence Rinder
BAM/PFA Director