Aart in transition Exhibit tries to capture transition of art from hot to cool

August 15, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

NEW YORK — What: "Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-1962"

Where: Whitney Museum of American Art, Madison Avenue and 75th Street, New York

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays through Sundays, 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, through Oct. 10

Admission: $6 adults; $5 students and seniors

$ Call: (212) 570-3676

New York -- Stylistically and philosophically, there could not be much more difference between any two art movements than there is between the abstract expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s and pop art, which succeeded it in the 1960s.

It's not just that abstract expressionism is abstract and pop is representational. Abstract expressionism is hot in feeling, pop is cool. Abstract expressionism is process-oriented, pop is product-oriented. Abstract expressionism is emotional, pop is detached. Abstract expressionism is intuitive, pop is calculated. Abstract expressionism puts emphasis on the hand of the artist, pop on producing art by mechanical, impersonal means.

Perhaps above all, abstract expressionism is fiercely committed and idealistic, while pop, in its mocking attitude toward high art, is ironic and even cynical; abstract expressionists believe art should be the embodiment of man's loftiest aims, while pop artists embrace the Duchampian attitude that anything can be art -- all you have to do is call it art.

They are not only different, they are enemies. Pop has been widely seen as having sprung up in opposition to abstract expressionism, and to have put the latter's practitioners in the shadows, thus earning their undying enmity.

But what's this? Along comes "Hand-Painted Pop," now at New York's Whitney Museum, to prove there's a direct line between the two. The exhibit, organized at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles by curators Donna De Salvo and Paul Schimmel, makes three main points:

* First, artists who had been raised on abstract expressionism, such as Grace Hartigan and Larry Rivers, were reaching out in the 1950s for new subject matter that anticipated that of the pop artists to follow.

* Second, abstract expressionism was so dominant a movement in the 1950s that later pop artists who were just starting out had to go through a period of gestural mark-making in the abstract expressionist tradition before developing their true, more impersonal means of expression.

* And third, that linking these movements were two important transitional figures, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

H

The show begins with major works by Hartigan and Rivers,

Hartigan's "Grand Street Brides" (1954) and "Billboard" (1957), and Rivers' "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1953). In his ,, work, Rivers satirically reinterprets Emmanuel Leutze's famous 1851 painting with Washington standing in the prow of the ship, one of the great cliches of American art. Although Rivers' handling of the subject mocks Leutze's, the picture seriously searches art history for a means to go beyond abstract expressionism.

Hartigan's past and present

Hartigan's "Grand Street Brides" encompasses both the past and the present, the high and the low. She paints in the gestural manner of the abstract expressionists, but the subject matter is taken from the American consumer milieu -- the idea came from (( mannequins in a bridal shop window near her Lower East Side studio. And she arranges them somewhat in the manner of court scenes by Velazquez and Goya, especially Goya's "Family of Charles IV" (1800). "Billboard" incorporates images from advertisements in Life magazine, thus also embracing American popular culture.

Next come the pivotal figures of the show, Rauschenberg and Johns. Rauschenberg (who has probably never looked more important than he does here) combines gestural handling with everyday images not by painting everyday images gesturally (as Hartigan does), but by juxtaposing actual objects -- a tie, a pair of pants, photographs cut out of newspapers -- with passages of abstract gestural painting. In the gallery devoted to his work of the 1950s and early 1960s -- "Interview" (1955), "Kickback" (1959), "Octave" (1960), etc. -- one can virtually see abstract expressionism and pop battling it out, and Rauschenberg assuming a position central to the history of postwar American art.

He not only heralded the coming of pop by including everyday objects, however; he signaled the death of the ideals of abstract expressionism by mocking its claim that a work of art was a spontaneous, intuitive search for an expression of the inner self. By creating two works, "Factum I" and "Factum II" (1957), in which not only the collaged photographs and other objects were identical but so were the brush strokes and drips, Rauschenberg demonstrated that the abstract expressionists' manner of making could be calculated. It was a cynical rejection of their raison d'etre. (Unfortunately, only "Factum I" is on view in the show; "II," in a private collection, was not lent.)

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