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The Old Is New Again

Eleven paintings you can’t miss at MoMA’s historic Abstract Expressionism show.


Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture,” which is currently occupying MoMA’s fourth floor, 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’s 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 will 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 eleven paintings you can’t miss, in order of appearance (all of them much, much better in person).



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