We all know from the fairy tale books the fate of Humpty Dumpty, who fell off the wall, and how “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Spiraling down the six levels of the Guggenheim Museum’s great rotunda in New York City, searching for a foothold amidst the dizzying and disconcerting display of abstract art forms from Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1949-1960, is a bit like searching for Humpty among the fragments. Chances are you won’t find what you’re looking for, but you will find something worth keeping, and in a fragmentary world, maybe that’s enough.

James Johnson Sweeney

Before you say “Sweeney who?” consider the prodigious task of making sense of a turbulent post-World War II world and the even more turbulent art scene that was emerging from it. James Johnson Sweeney, the museum’s second director from 1952-1960, was following in the wake of Solomon R. Guggenheim’s death in 1949 and the end of founding director Hilla Rebay’s tenure. Rebay’s personal mission was to promote nonobjective painting above all other forms of art. Her artistic guru was none other than Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, who believed in making the inner world of the psyche visible. In the New York art world that was, needless to say, a hard act to follow. Today, the Guggenheim can boast of a 150 of Kandinsky’s works, some of which are on permanent display on the level three annex.

From the beginning, Sweeney knew he could not simply be content to safeguard the existing holdings of his predecessors. His decade was to be the vital pre-dawn period preceding the Guggenheim’s inauguration of October ’59. “I do not believe in the so-called ‘tastemakers,’” he once stated, according to a press release, “but in what I would call ‘tastebreakers’ — the people who break open and enlarge our artistic frontiers.” He was intent on looking far and wide to augment the collections, and in the explosive decade of the ’50s, his impassioned eye encompassed not only the New York School but the Art Brut and Cobra; the School of Paris; and the Spanish and Italian Informel (an umbrella term for such movements as matiérisme (matter art) and Tachisme (from tache, meaning blot or stain).

Of course, while artistic movements existed as an integral response to the social and political anxiety of the times and cannot be ignored, any search for meaning or substance must begin with the works themselves. Each painting or sculpture on display exists as an expression of the individual creator, and curator Tracey Bashkoff as well as assistant curator Megan Fontanella, have assembled enough “tastebreakers” to start another revolution in our own post-abstract century.

 Sweeney’s Tastebreakers

For the intrepid visitor who prefers to start at the lower room adjacent to the ground rotunda and wind upwards, a trio of canvasses that could be a show in themselves immediately comes into view. On the left, in monochromatic black and white, is a giant grid in heavy brushstrokes by Franz Kline, followed in dead center by Jackson Pollock’s Ocean Greyness from 1953, a magnificent canvas of contorted shapes, suggesting eyes and amorphous shapes against a charcoal background. This is considered a breakthrough work for the artist and his own response to the earlier Surrealist movement. Upon entering the room, the power inherent in the contrasts of shape and color draws the viewer in, not unlike the reaction to Van Gogh’s more imagistic A Starry Night on a first viewing. To the right, Two Heads, an offering by Karel Appel, presents us with the heavy primitive monsters of the title. The bold brush strokes and leering faces complement rather than detract from its Pollock neighbor. The show’s curators are to be congratulated for this highly successful arrangement.

Pollock fans may be aware of his stellar celebrity within the world of abstract art, and how Peggy Guggenheim played a key role in hosting his first exhibition at her earlier Art of This Century gallery. Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim inherited $2.5 million dollars when she turned 19 (her father Benjamin died on the Titanic — and that amount was the equivalent of $20 million today). Upon moving to Paris, she quickly aligned herself with every bohemian exhibiting a bent for modern art, in whatever forms it took. Her support was vital to the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, Max Ernst, Georges Braque, Wassily Kandinsky, René Magritte, Man Ray, Alexander Calder, and many others too numerous to outline here. Between 1938 and 1946, her exhibitions and subsequent collections assured the reputations of the majority of the 20th century modernists we revere today.

If Sweeney didn’t aspire to the superstardom that followed Peggy Guggenheim’s every purchase, his unerring eye was to make a lasting impact internationally. For example, the seminal importance of Appel is not to be ignored, and he is given proper weight in this showing. As a founding member of the Cobra group (1948-51), Appel and Asger Jorn formed a tightly-knit association of artists from cities like Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam who, in turn, took their inspiration from French artist Jean Dubuffet’s spontaneous methods of Art Brut (Raw Art). Directly opposing the official culture of the day, Dubuffet found his inspiration in the unschooled scribbles of children and the institutionalized.

Such primitivism is obvious in The Crying Crocodile Tries to Catch the Sun, another hypnotic offering of Appel’s that torments the onlooker. His imagery captures in crude, contrasting primal colors, the darks and lights of a child’s sensibility. But is it art, you might ask. John Graham, in his System and Dialectics of Art, advised that “great art is always ceremonial. The great art is terrifying, sometimes monstrous and repellent, but always beautiful. When the gods speak, the figure is stupendous and frightful.”

But perhaps it is said best by the artists themselves:

“I never try to make a painting; it is a howl, it is naked, it is like a child, it is a caged tiger…my tube is like a rocket writing its own space.” (Karel Appel, 1956)

“Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.” (Jackson Pollock, 1956)

Cobra member Asger Jorn has also created another “howl” of sorts in the enigmatic A Soul for Sale. Here an amorphous white shape struggles against the heavy smears and blotches of the canvas as if claustrophobically entrapped. Another member of this auspicious group worth mentioning is Pierre Alechinsky, whose work Vanish gives us a more liberated enigma, as if some eternal swirling form is confronting the viewer.

Enigmas abound, and are undoubtedly on view, in the work of Alberto Burri and Antonio Tàpies, who employed unorthodox materials like burlap or sand, focusing on the transformative qualities of matter. Burri’s Composition from 1953 employs oil, gold paint, and glue on burlap and canvas, and manages to create, in spite of its moody palette, a spatial elegance. Lucio Fontana, another artist who was behind the Manifesto Blanco of 1946, engages his audience with a large monochromatic canvas with seductive rips in the fabric that pulls the viewer, rather than repels him, into the work. He believed in “breaking the membrane of two-dimensionality” to create a fourth dimension of “free space.” Some viewers could say that a trip to the funhouse is more rewarding. You pay your dollar for a glimpse behind the curtain, but Fontana only teases us with what lies within. But isn’t that the point? This artist has left what’s unseen to your own imagination.

A word of warning to the onlooker: Many of the images encountered, hold rich, if unsolvable, mysteries within the contours of the canvas that even the trained eye could miss on a first or even cursory viewing. In many instances, the large dimensions of major works expand the opportunities to take in details otherwise overlooked and allow the viewer to keep his or her distance, and still clearly observe the image. Conversely, the captions provided are often so unobtrusively placed on the edge of walls and of such a diminutive size that the visitor may opt instead for looking up an unfamiliar artist in the exhibit catalog or at home on the Internet.

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