"Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture," which is currently occupying the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, is composed entirely of art drawn from the museum’s colossal permanent collection (much of which lives in storage in Queens and other locations the rest of the time). It’s a don’t-miss show that doesn’t, admittedly, tell any new stories but that is a profound reminder of a revolutionary vitality.
Abstract Expressionism -- the first American movement to have a worldwide influence -- was remarkably short-lived: It heated up after World War II and was all but done for by 1960 (although visit any art school today and you’ll find a would-be Willem de Kooning). The artists behind it were out to shatter all that had come before it; technique and skill were completely reimagined and emotion was everything, which is why there has always been a lot of accompanying blah-blah about spirituality and the sublime. Curator Ann Temkin has thankfully stripped away any rhetoric. In doing so, she highlights the intentions of the Abstract Expressionists: To "start from scratch, to paint as if painting never existed before," said Barnett Newman, one of its greatest artists, and break free of "memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth." De Kooning said they were simply "desperate."
The MoMA show allows you to see that desperation. You grasp how these painters broke with the past, probed premodern and archaic art, and escaped the clutches of European Cubism and Surrealism to explore the mostly unknown precincts of pure abstraction, arriving at a number of radically formal inventions and staggeringly optical solutions. I found myself newly astonished by paintings I had seen over and over, by intricately orchestrated drips, by fuzzy smudges and stripes floating within fields of color.
Right outside the entrance to the show, Temkin has placed standouts from MoMA’s Pop collection -- Warhol’s Marilyn and soup cans, one of Jasper Johns’ flags. These are the artists who reaped the artistic rewards established by the Abstract Expressionists, before putting them out of business. It’s a canny move, because with one hit of Warhol, you see how Pop upended art once again. As poet John Ashbery said, "We all seemed to benefit from [their] strong moment, even if we paid little attention to it and seemed to be going our separate ways." Abstract Expressionists, who turned their back on what had come before, were swiftly declared obsolete.
The only problem with the show is that it will end. I’ve complained before about MoMA’s 2004 expansion, which somehow still did not make room for the bulk of the museum’s astonishing collection. The historic pow of this show begs for permanence. But on April 25, many of the 100 paintings go back into storage -- which is all the more reason to get out and see them. As motivation, here’s my Sherpa’s guide to 11 paintings you can’t miss, in order of appearance (all of them much, much better in person).
Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf (1943)
Pollock’s frazzled masterpiece finds the 31-year-old artist frantically trying to merge Mexican murals and myth with house paint. It’s in the first room of the show, which includes paintings by artists like Mark Rothko and Philip Guston -- all of them struggling to move beyond Picasso, Mondrian and Miró. This tremendous cave-painting-on-canvas suggests that few artists had less natural artistic ability than the young Pollock, who at this point is making art out of sheer will and panic. His biggest champion, critic Clement Greenberg, called The She-Wolf violent and sadistic. But I see courage here, and what Thelonious Monk meant by "ugly beauty."
Arshile Gorky, Garden in Sochi (1943)
Gorky is the ground zero of Abstract Expressionism. While most artists searched for ways around the gigantic artistic generator/stumbling block known as Picasso, Gorky bravely went directly through him, at times making work virtually indistinguishable from the Spaniard’s. (He once snapped, "If he drips, I drip.") In the quasi-lunar landscape, Gorky was arriving at a unique blend of flattened-out Cubism, a post-Kandinsky-and-Miró biomorphism. Male Abstract Expressionists (and nearly all of them were) had notably macho tendencies: competitive, posturing, hard-living and often tortured. Gorky hanged himself in 1948.
Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31 (1950)
For me, the high point of the show is this, which manages simultaneously to be a painting, a force field and an electromagnetic visual discharge. This is an artist sloughing off old consciousness, making something he doesn’t even know is art, giving up nearly all known languages of painting, and maybe violating the laws of nature by making something that seemingly puts off more energy than went into making it. With these seemingly random (but highly choreographed) involuting networks of inchoate space, Pollock has captured, with tremendous volition, what 1950 looked, felt and sounded like -- a culture hurtling toward a nervous breakdown. (Pollock was on his own tumultuous course: He was dead six years later, after crashing a car while driving drunk.)
Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950–51)
In this sententiously titled ("Man, Heroic and Sublime") preternatural tableau of totality and nothingness, Newman gave up all traditional notions of skill and drawing. It’s a massive canvas, overwhelming in orangeness, that induces nearly psychedelic retinal glitches and optical ghosts. As Newman said, "You’re not looking at anything. . . but you yourself become very visible." I love that.
Mark Rothko, No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black) (1958)
Rothko’s best work has what he called "the impact of the unequivocal." And his glowing Buddhist TVs are the closest modernism has come to the impact and content of Greek drama. In these optical oracles, everything is on; nothing is on; we see silence, static, disintegration, formation, the organic, the otherworldly, some twilight place and disintegrative force. In this canvas, the fibrillating forms and fields of irradiating color absorb us as we absorb them, creating a psychic rupture unlike anything else in art. (Adding to the violent death toll: In 1970, Rothko died after hacking his arms with a razor.)
Willem de Kooning,Woman, I (1950–52)
Before Francis Bacon painted exploding popes, de Kooning painted women that are part blood sacrifice, part pure hatred, and part a kind of love that is as wild on canvas as it might have been in the flesh. (He was, I must say, just five-foot-seven -- my own height -- and managed to sleep with just about every woman on the art scene.) But judging from the masticating brushwork and garishness of Woman, I, he was probably more enamored with the voluptuousness of oil paint than with any of the women he bedded. He once said, perhaps in his own defense: "All an artist has left to work with is his self-consciousness."
Lee Krasner, Number 3 (Untitled) (1951)
Irony was the province of Pop Art. The lack of it in Abstract Expressionism helped kill it (de Kooning once screamed at Warhol, "You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty"). So leave it to one of the few Ab-Ex women painters, Lee Krasner (aggrieved wife of Pollock), to exercise one of the few scrupulously removed and ironic touches. It’s like she’s chuckling, "While the guys make some mythic trip to Vall-fucking-halla, I’m over here, quietly making a cool geometric composition." Krasner’s approach here predicts future minimalists Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse. Too bad she never followed up on it herself.
Hedda Sterne, New York, VIII (1954)
Like Krasner, Sterne was not considered an A-list artist. (Did I mention that the artists of Abstract Expressionism, and the museums that collected them, were essentially misogynistic?) Yet Sterne was included in Nina Leen’s famous 1950 Life magazine portrait of the otherwise all-guy group of Ab-Ex stars. So she clearly had some kind of balls. And in this piece, you can see how marvelously alive and prescient she was; its spray-painted enamel geometries and pictorial attitude predict artists like Christopher Wool and Albert Oehlen -- as well as countless graffiti painters in the ‘70s. Put a pillow at the top of its quilt-like image, and it anticipates Robert Rauschenberg’s painting of his blanket, Bed.
Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting (1957)
Reinhardt takes Newman’s massive monochromatic fields and Rothko’s amorphous geometric structure away from all-encompassing and enveloping largeness, placing us firmly back inside our minds and bodies in more human-scale canvases; stand in front of this shimmering black rectangle and observe yourself seeing and feeling the sensation and surprises involved in discerning tiny increments of color, form and structure. It’s both cerebral and erotic. Reinhardt’s work anticipates both the optical pop of op art and the flat, just-the-facts braininess of minimalism.
Clyfford Still, 1944-N No. 2 (1944)
We don’t see this large, craggy canvas until almost the last gallery of the show, which is strange since it paved the way for Rothko’s and Newman’s open fields of color, their abandonment of line and painterly technique. Still he summed up what many artists of the time felt when he said, "To be stopped by a frame’s edge was intolerable; a Euclidian prison. It had to be annihilated."
Philip Guston, Edge of Town (1969)
Temkin bookends her show with Guston. In the first gallery is a WPA-like battle scene. In the last room is this whacked-out vision from an artist off the Ab-Ex reservation. Guston was the only Abstract Expressionist painter to escape the pull of the movement before it ended or killed him. Although a manic blowhard himself, maybe he couldn’t take the movement’s intense seriousness anymore: Like the tea party, it was a humorless and often bludgeoning revolution. And as this fantastical and cartoonish vision shows, Guston’s combustible wit, gall, and irony could not be contained.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at email@example.com.