Though muted cerebral works in brown and black tones, like the sand-infused canvases of Tàpies, the thick, ebony lines of Pierre Soulages — as if quickly drawn by a gigantic magic marker — or the black on black painting in oil, enamel and varnish by Jimmy Ernst bear close inspection, this is primarily a show where the heavy-hitters of color take main stage. Whether you find yourself climbing up or strolling downward in Frank Lloyd-Wright’s multi-level wonderland, you will be invariably caught by the wild splashes of paint screaming for attention from some opposite vantage point. (And honestly speaking, the dark, sometimes brutal renderings of Spanish Informalism, its artists acting out against the long repression of Franco’s cruel regime, may be understandable, but ultimately depressing in tone and substance. The eye is relieved to see what wonders color and space in a two-dimensional reality can bring.)

Willem de Kooning’s Composition of oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas, is a symphony of vigorous contrasts. The museum’s Web notes describe it as a bridge between his women series and his landscapes, “A woman obfuscated by agitated brushwork, clashing colors and overall composition.” If you can’t find the woman referred to in this description, it is also suggested that the reds and turquoises and the chrome yellows signify the frenetic pace of city life. Take your pick.

Solving the riddles inherent in de Kooning’s works may be too much when confronted with a single work, and it is to the Museum of Modern Art’s credit that their major retrospective in September 2011, of paintings sprawled over seven decades, put the question largely to rest. In the New York Times review of the show, curator John Elderfield was quoted as saying de Kooning was one artist “whose work is hard to put your hands around.” De Kooning is simply de Kooning.

One surprise that emerges in the Guggenheim’s exhibit is an elegant work by his artist-wife Elaine de Kooning from 1958. It’s a beautiful evocation of what abstract art can do with color alone. Her beautiful pastels, in peaches and yellows with black accents, hold together a type of elegance not easily found or anticipated in her husband’s works.

The “action painting” that critic Harold Rosenberg coined for the New York School of Painting is not only evident in de Kooning’s paintings, but in the paintings of Grace Hartigan — another significant member of this group and one of the few women to be considered along with the big boys to break the tradition of vertical easel painting. When the Museum of Modern Art featured her in a New American Painting exhibit that traveled to eight European cities from 1958-1959, her reputation was assured. After extensive travel in Ireland, Hartigan completed a series of abstract works that evoke that country for her. Ireland is a bold and colorful swash of brilliant blues and oranges that show the close associations she had formed with Pollock and de Kooning.

Another woman whose painting received international attention during this time is the Hungarian-born Judit Reigl — Outburst (Eclatement) from 1956 is an exhibit highlight newly acquired by the museum in 2012. Reigl vigorously attacked the canvas by hurling by hand a mixture of industrial pigment and linseed oil onto the surface, working it with a long knife, then flattening the paint into diagonal bands with a bent curtain rod. That might sound like a counterproductive way to achieve the elegance in form and spatial harmony that she manages to achieve. Her techniques may rival other action painters but the result is surprisingly graceful.

A leap into the fray of abstract painting would not be complete without Mark Rothko’s Untitled from 1949. His stacked rectangles, with fields of luminous color, create stillness rather than chaos. Yet, he saw painting as a battle of opposites. In his treatise, The Artist’s Reality, Philosophy of Art, he proclaims that the artist’s way of identifying with his age is to “look at nature in that particular way that entails tearing it apart in order to rebuild.”

Sculpture – The Third Dimension

Carrying un autre art into the three-dimensional world became a liberating exercise as well and the works on view by welder-sculptors such as Herbert Ferber and Theodore Roszak are a testament to that challenge. In this exhibit, what becomes not only memorable but a refreshing interlude to the brash undertakings of the two-dimensional masters described, are the meditative works of Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Eduardo Chillida and particularly, the incomparable Isamu Noguchi.

The slender anthropomorphic sculptures of Bourgeois on display here are worthy of some reflection as is the artist’s own simple statement: “Art is the guarantee of sanity.” Her Femme Volage is only one of several surrogate people, and this one was created as a self-portrait. From Within by Basque artist Chillida, is an iron construction that manages to cut the space around it in such a way, as to make what is absent as vital as the shape itself. The inherent grace in Noguchi’s work is hard to ignore. The Cry is a balsa wood construction that is designed to move ever so slightly with the natural air currents that surround it.

Finally, Calder’s Red Lily Pads are suspended from the upper ramps and visible from the rotunda below. Not only referencing the natural world in his own unique style, they are, what can only be described as a whimsical refreshment for the eye, and are the perfect reason to step out from the paintings for brief periods of time in your own personal journey.

Even if the various schools and correspondences are a little heady to assimilate during an exhibition visit, it’s important to remember that these artists disregarded the prevailing norm. As said by assistant curator Ms. Fontanella, in an online video prepared for this exhibit, “In this period, you see so many artists embracing diversity, individuality, the so-called art of another kind.” She further emphasized that “the more experimental trends in art were initially in danger in the postwar period because of the more conservative trends and this kind of fear, I think, of abstractionists being perhaps subversive.” An article published in 1949 by Daniel Catton Rich for the Art Institute of Chicago called for “the freedom of the brush.” She went on to say that in 1950 the “modern manifesto” issued by the Whitney Museum in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, stated that artists can pursue whatever style he or she chooses and that art would be international in its focus. She noted that the exhibition was inspired by French art critic Michel Tapié’s book, Un Autre Art, a “break with traditional notions of composition and a movement toward something wholly other.”

So, just how exactly do we comprehend the incomprehensible, this so-called “other?” Robert Hughes, a foremost critic of the 20th century in his monumental work, The Shock of the New, summarized it thusly: “The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world.”

And so, each of us in his own way, tries to put Humpty back together again; we may not succeed, and even if we can only attempt it — like so many of Sweeney’s tastebreakers — it is worth the visit to see how valiantly these artists tried.

“Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1949-1960” will be on display through September 12, 2012 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, located at 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10128. For more information, please visit or call 212-423-3840.

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