“Surface Truths: Abstract Painting in the Sixties” at the Norton Simon Museum

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"Adriatic," 1968, Helen Frankenthaler
“Adriatic,” 1968, Helen Frankenthaler, Acrylic on canvas, 132 1/8″ x 93″
Photo: courtesy Norton Simon Museum/Gift of the Artist 2011 Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This recent, vibrant exhibition at the Norton Simon museum enlists the work of 16 artists actively working during the 1960s who sought to define new directions in painting against the backdrop of the waning AbEx School and rising influence of Pop Art. Culled exclusively from the museum’s own collection, 17 large-scale paintings illustrate the emerging trends–Post-painterly Abstraction, Color Field, Hard Edge and Minimalism–that emphasize surface, scale and the technical investigations of these artists.

Two of the earliest works on view, situated on either side of the entrance, echo one another while setting the stage for the contrasting techniques exemplified throughout the exhibition. In Le Ciel Amoureux (1960) by Stephen Greene–student of Guston and professor to Stella–a biomorphic birdlike figure is perched on the left side of the work, against the receding infinite of a sky blue. Frank Lobdell, who studied in San Francisco alongside Diebenkorn, Rothko and Still, similarly paints an abstracted form against a solid ground: the agitated red surface advances toward the viewer, while the black-edged form evokes a microscopic view of flesh and bone. From there, the tone varies, from Agnes Martin’s meditative Leaf in the Wind (1963), to Takeshi Kawashima’s pulsating red-and-black graphic Abstraction (1964) and Thomas Downing’s playful buoyant circles in Red-1966 (1966).

The second room of “Truths” is a fully saturated powerhouse of color, echoing Noland’s well-known desire that color could be “the origin of painting.” In the robust Red-Vermillion (1964) by Jack Youngerman, swaths of brilliant red against white are countered by a deep-burnt orange marks; his vigorous brushstrokes, suggesting the influence of expressionist forebears, are countered by a coolly detached floating red sphere. Helen Frankenthaler’s Adriatic (1968) engulfs the viewer with her signature “soak stain” vibrant washes of persimmon over a horizontal band of deep violet. Neighboring canvases, Ellsworth Kelly’s pennant Red Orange White Green Blue (1968) and Kenneth Noland’s Par Transit (1966), at first appear quite similar, however a second look reveals that Kelly’s work is comprised of five conjoined canvases–each painted a single uniform color, while Noland’s tilted parallelogram is a single canvas stained with diagonal bars of subtly varying autumnal shades. Two large-scale works by Stella, Damascus Gate I and Conway III, are classic examples of the artist’s experiments with scale and form, and their sculptural flirtations. Although the works shown in the exhibition are largely familiar, this iconic reunion serves as an invigorating reminder of the fruitfulness borne from the experiments of the post-Post War Abstractionists.