Palmer Museum of Art exhibition examines evolution of abstraction in the 1940s

George LK Morris (American, 1905-1975), Composition, 1940, oil on canvas, 30 3/16 x 23 1/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1946, 1946-70-15

Lee Krasner (American, 1908-1984), Composition, 1949, oil on canvas, 38 1/16 x 27 13/16 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of the Aaron E. Norman Fund, Inc., 1959, 1959-31-1 © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A captivating new exhibition at Palmer Art Museum at Penn State examines how some of the most provocative mid-century artists moved from figuration to abstraction.

A Path Through: Abstract Art of the 1940s presents major works by Suzy Frelinghuysen, Arshile Gorky, Paul Keene, Lee Krasner, Alice Trumbull Mason, Henry McCarter, George LK Morris, Irene Rice Pereira, Judith Rothschild, Charles Green Shaw, Esphyr Slobodkina, Hedda Sterne and John von Wicht. Many of these artists – including a significant number of women, whose contributions have too often been overlooked – were the founders and early members of the American Abstract Artists group.

The exhibition is organized by the Palmer Museum of Art and curated by Adam M. Thomas, Curator of American Art at the Palmer. It can now be viewed at Penn State, the only location, through May 15, 2022.

A Path Through: Abstract Art of the 1940s is the most comprehensive look at mid-century abstraction in the history of the museum,” said Erin M. Coe, director of the Palmer Museum of Art. “As part of Palmer’s 50th anniversary celebration, this captivating exhibition brings together important loans from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and places them alongside works from the museum’s collection. This provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the development of abstract art in the United States and how our programmatic partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made possible by the Art Bridges Initiative, can grow in new directions for the future, especially as we look at our new museum facilities.

Abstract art proliferated in the United States in the 1940s and was engulfed by economic chaos, world war, the Holocaust, and nuclear destruction. Mid-century American artists experimented with a wide range of abstractions and new modes of visual expression as a means of dealing with the societal upheaval of the time.

The title of the exhibition derives in part from the last lines of Clement Greenberg’s 1940 essay Towards a new Laocoön, in which the influential critic recognized and promoted the challenge of abstract art, arguing for the need to “work your way through it”.

Irene Rice Pereira (American, 1902–1971), Untitled (Two Triangles), c. 1940, oil and pigmented varnish on canvas, 36 x 30 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with the J. Stogdell Stokes Fund (2011), 2011-10-1 © Estate of Irene Rice Pereira

Precursor of the New York School and abstract expressionism, the The American Abstract Artists group was founded in New York in 1936. The cohort was united in its belief in the importance of non-figurative compositions and the autonomy of the work of art. It opened its first annual exhibition in 1937.

“This exhibit offers a rare glimpse into the early origins of abstract art in the face of intense cultural resistance during a particularly tumultuous and creative decade,” said curator Adam M. Thomas.

A way through is part of a series of exhibitions of American art created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the Art Bridges Initiative.

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