New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Art Collection
After 1955, a number of New York School artists moved away from a “hot,” gestural style to what art critic Irving Sandler dubbed the new “cool art” of the 1960s. Although the late 1950s and early ’60s have often been viewed as a mere parenthesis between Abstract Expressionism, on the one hand, and Pop Art and Minimalism, on the other, many key innovations surfaced during this in-between era. Some artists reinvigorated Abstract Expressionism by describing landscapes or figures with vigorous brushwork or poured paint. Others developed a suggestive art of memory, rejecting the very idea of expressionism for a cooler realism or geometry.
New York Cool proposes a fresh vision of an eclectic time. Drawn from the New York University Art Collection— founded in 1958 and particularly rich in New York School works—the exhibition demonstrates how many downtown artists, living in the stimulating environments of Greenwich Village and, later, SoHo, fostered a new kind of personal sensibility in tandem with a seemingly impersonal geometric style. Allusive instead of expressive, understated rather than declarative, the painting and sculpture of this time set the stage for everything that followed.
Abstract and Not-So-Abstract
Born in Montreal, Guston attended high school in Los Angeles, where he befriended Jackson Pollock. At an age when the latter displayed little more than a talent for teenage rebellion, Guston was already a fine draughtsman. (He later taught a freshman drawing class at New York University.)
Following a sojourn in Italy, Guston adopted a mode of gestural abstract painting—dubbed Abstract Impressionism—in which blurry planes and shapes float in a field of crosshatched brushstrokes. At first glance Guston’s mid-career abstractions, such as this one, appear somewhat pastoral, but in retrospect they reveal an anxiety that emerges, full throttle, in his late, cartoon-like depictions of hooded Klansmen, bare light bulbs, cyclopean eyes, and dispossessed shoes.
The “New American Painting” of the 1950s was, to a great extent, created by foreign-born artists. Esteban Vicente immigrated to the United States after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Within a decade he belonged to the circle of Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning—with whom he eventually shared a studio.
Vicente’s first abstract works reflect the influence of Cézanne’s landscapes. By the early 1950s, he was making Cubist-inspired collages. His subsequent work employs overlapping squares and rectangles arranged in grid-like formations. During the 1950s he moved on to irregular shapes delineated by vigorous, gestural brushstrokes, such as in Untitled No. 5,where the colored patches appear to push and pull against each other. Later on, Vicente used an air gun to create luminous, floating fields of color. His lifelong teaching roster included stints at the New York Studio School, Black Mountain College, Parsons, Princeton, Berkeley, NYU, and Yale.
Hale Woodruff first won critical recognition in a 1926 Indianapolis competition for black artists. Moving to Paris the following year, he studied the work of Monet, Cézanne, and the African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (who lived in France). Returning to the United States during the Great Depression, Woodruff began teaching at Atlanta University, a new school for black students. There he adopted the Regionalist style, which he employed for his late 1930s murals recounting the story of the Amistad mutiny for Talledega College.
Woodruff moved to New York in the mid-1940s and taught at NYU until 1967. He emerged as an important member of the New York School, working on the border between abstraction and figuration. The forms in his work were inspired by diverse sources, such as Ashanti gold weights from Ghana and children’s sidewalk drawings. Reflecting his lifelong interest in Civil Rights, in 1962 he became a founding member of Spiral, the influential group addressing the condition of African American artists.
Bluhm’s compositions of the late 1950s and ’60s may reflect his early training in architecture under Mies van der Rohe at the Armour Institute of Technology (later the Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago. After serving as a bomber pilot during World War II, Bluhm took up painting and moved to Florence and then Paris, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and shared a studio with fellow American émigré Sam Francis.
Settling in New York in 1956, Bluhm began building up his paintings by a process of accretion, multiplying clusters of brushstrokes until they became an allover field of color expanding evenly across the surface of the canvas. By the end of the decade, as seen here, Bluhm had shifted to a style of bolder strokes locking together like the girders of a steel truss. The seemingly uncontrollable spills and splatters of paint appear catalyzed by an ecstatic release of primal energies.
Born in the United States to Italian immigrants, Marca-Relli spent time in Paris and Rome; in New York, he associated with Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and took part in the 1949 founding of the famous Club of Abstract Expressionists that met every Friday at 39 East Eighth Street.
Marca-Relli often worked in collage, “drawing” rapidly with a razor blade, cutting pieces of canvas into random shapes and dispersing them across the picture surface. Confining himself to a narrow range of hues, he combined colored strips with painted areas. The resulting compositions evoke geological sedimentation and compression. He further enhanced the sense of natural process with smears of tar or scorch marks made with a cigarette lighter. The large scale and exuberant manner of Marca-Relli’s collages call attention to the physical acts he engaged in to make them. This reference to his body reminds us that his previous works were figure paintings—indeed, the figure remained his primary subject until the early 1960s.
Women, Men, and Other Beasts
De Kooning’s Women pictures of the 1950s and ’60s began as caricatural diagrams of the female body. In Woman with a Green and Beige Background, the figure reclines with legs parted, breasts spreading sideways, and elbows extended. Covering her face with her hands, she displays a toothy grin—perhaps a reference to Picasso, who often portrayed his lovers as simultaneously indispensable and threatening.
In contrast with the pose’s pornographic overtones, its symmetry reduces the body to an abstract ideograph, while the scumbled pinks, whites, oranges, and greens are more tender than provocative. No longer a pretext for formal experimentation, the body is now a given, a familiar theme upon which de Kooning could improvise, displaying his dazzling brushwork and his predilection for luscious, overripe color.
Elaine de Kooning
In 1957, Elaine de Kooning—recently separated from her famous husband and living in Albuquerque, New Mexico—visited the bullfights at Ciudad Juárez, across the Mexican border from El Paso. The experience inspired a series of drawings, watercolors, and paintings in which the image of a bull is sometimes indicated directly, other times by abstract vertices of dark brushstrokes set against a brightly colored field.
Bulls and bullfighting enjoy a long artistic heritage, reaching back through Picasso’s lithographs of the mid-1940s to drawings of bison in the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira. By the 1950s, the ethos of bullfighting, as described by Ernest Hemingway inDeath in the Afternoon (1932), enjoyed new popularity among artists and intellectuals attuned to the sensibility of Existentialism, which made every brushstroke or word into a life-or-death decision. In her iconic and calligraphic rendition, de Kooning evokes the bull’s instinctual reflexes for survival and its seemingly boundless, if tightly contained, energies.
A longtime teacher at Cooper Union, from 1947 through the late 1980s, Nicholas Marsicano was invariably drawn to the female nude—perhaps reflecting his early training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Barnes Foundation, where he studied the extraordinary collection of modern masters from Cézanne to Matisse.
Marsicano’s figures of the 1960s suggest Ingres’s odalisques repainted by Willem de Kooning, except that Marsicano’s figures read not as presences but absences. In his work, the eroticized body stands out assertively from its surroundings, rejecting the integration of figure and ground that characterizes the modernist tradition from Impressionism through Abstract Expressionism. Here the figure’s reclining pose strikes what was, for Marsicano, a typical note of sexual availability and self-display.
In the summer of 1949, after graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh, Philip Pearlstein shared an apartment with his college roommate Andy Warhol on St. Mark’s Place. Pearlstein began his career designing catalogues of plumbing fixtures and mechanical ventilators. A little over a decade later, he was painting nude models in his studio—slumped across the floor, propping themselves up on one arm, or standing in the floodlights’ cold glare.
Pearlstein’s Two Models on Studio Floor functions simultaneously as a three-dimensional construction and a two-dimensional, allover pattern. Exploring the body in graphic terms, Pearlstein forecloses the possibility of erotic arousal. As he once commented, dealing with “a naked body … in a cold, objective, almost clinical way sets up a pictorial tension … I call it suppressed hysteria.”
In his early work, Will Barnet combined intimist evocations of family life with a modernist sense of form, while teaching printmaking and painting at the Art Students League, and other schools. Like many artists of the time, he often found inspiration in Native American art, arranging emblematic forms within grids of vertical bands derived from Synthetic Cubism.
Barnet joined the advance guard of American painting in the late 1950s, when he abandoned the Cubist grid in favor of curved, interlocking shapes—a style he employed in a series of iconic portraits of his family and friends, among them Portrait of RRN. The subject, Roy R. Neuberger, sits in a throne-like armchair and sports a debonair black overcoat, whose regal draping dramatically counters the thrust of his crossed legs. This dynamic contrapposto conveys Neuberger’s reputation as an astute businessman and progressive art collector.
After studying lettering in high school and commercial art at Cooper Union, Alex Katz might have ended up painting real billboards. Instead, he switched to fine art. Like the French Impressionists, he wanted to capture his perceptions as rapidly as possible, with little or no revision. Inspired by the work of Matisse and Conrad Marca-Relli, he experimented with collage, cutting and gluing papers to represent figures and landscapes, adopting a language of flat color and simplified drawing.
In his paintings, Katz typically depicts himself or his art-world friends. His favorite subject is his wife, Ada, a research biologist whom he met at a gallery opening in 1958. Her oval face—with its arched eyebrows, heavy lashes, long nose, and sculpted lips—is an iconic image of the 1960s, the thinking person’s answer to Andy Warhol’s Marilyn. In Ada Seated, Katz returns to the landscape settings of his pictures of the 1950s, his wife glimpsed amid sun-drenched grass. He pulls the brilliant green pigment up to the canvas’s top edge but stops short, pointing to its fundamental nature as a field for setting down visual perceptions.
Not until the 1950s and ’60s—that is, near the end of his life—did Milton Avery paint landscapes in the same radically simplified style as his interiors, reshaping the contours of rocks, waves, and beaches to conjure up living, organic shapes.
From Picasso, Avery learned how to distort the contours of his figures so they seemed both flat and massive; from Matisse, how to apply paint in layers of thinly brushed, saturated color to achieve maximum luminosity. Jagged Wave combines the two approaches, its flat grey sky extending over the black sea and cream-colored stretch of beach, its white breakers straining to reach the horizon line—tensed fingers rising up and falling back again. Such dynamism contrasts eerily with the ominous smoothness of the dark sea beyond. Avery’s glowing colors and delicately balanced masses sometimes verge on prettiness. Not here.
Visiting Jackson Pollock in 1951, Helen Frankenthaler observed how he poured lines and pools of black paint onto raw canvas, creating an image that appeared to be stained into the weave instead of resting on top of it. Back in her studio, she experimented with thinning and pouring different hues, using oil paint to create watercolor-like washes. The resulting images seemed alternately to merge with the canvases and float free of them.
In 1962, Frankenthaler began using acrylic paints that spread more evenly and did not form oily halos. Seascape with Dunes marks a halfway point between these two distinct approaches. Here, the artist initially painted rectangular “frames” of color extending to her pictures’ literal edges; within a few years, however, she began pulling these frames back toward the center of the canvas. Whatever their format, Frankenthaler’s works communicate the transcendental beauty of the natural world without actually resembling it.
Early in his career, during the 1930s, Adolph Gottlieb—along with Mark Rothko—was a disciple of Milton Avery’s, absorbing his luminous colors, simplified drawing, and penchant for quasi-humorous depictions of the human figure. Later Gottlieb was drawn to the work of the metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico. Breaking away from Avery’s influence, he painted a series of pictographs, gridded compositions studded with mysterious faces, eyes, and abstract motifs.
Circular is a classic work of Gottlieb’s postwar period. One of a series of abstract landscapes featuring a darkly glowing sun or moon suspended over a fertile plain, Circular appears so intuitively right that it induces a flash of satori, or Zen-like equilibrium.
After serving as a pilot and cryptographer in World War II, Kenneth Noland studied painting at Black Mountain College, an ultra-progressive school boasting faculty members Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Willem de Kooning, as well as students Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, and Kenneth Snelson, among others.
Following a visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s New York studio in 1953, Noland began staining his raw canvases directly with oil pigments, so that they retained the luminousness and translucency of watercolor. Painted in the late 1950s, Spread demonstrates Noland’s achievement of a distinctly personal style based on concentric circular bands in unpredictable sequences of highly saturated colors. In Spread, the hard-edged inner rings become increasingly painterly as they expand from the center—until the outermost band threatens to spin off into space, as if propelled by centrifugal force.
In 1964, as NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences prepared to move into its new home in Warren Weaver Hall, Al Held was one of several artists invited to submit proposals for a lobby mural. Although he did not win the commission, his sketch was acquired for the NYU Art Collection. He later painted a full-sized version, Greek Gardens, which measures twelve feet high and fifty-six feet long.
Early on, Abstract Expressionism was antithetical to geometric abstraction. But in the 1950s, Willem de Kooning demonstrated that gestural brushstrokes could encompass not only the body’s curves but also stripes, squares, and triangles. The point was taken up by younger painters like Held. By the early 1960s, he had arrived at an array of basic forms arranged in an elongated band. Works such as Mural Sketch harbor a secret: each seemingly generic shape—circle, square, triangle—is incomplete. Placed sequentially along the canvas, each shape challenges us to confront it individually before moving on to the next.
Iron Butterfly was a heavy-metal rock band of the late 1960s, best known for their song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” with its eerie mixture of pounding bass, squeaky organ, and endless drum solo. Nicholas Krushenick appropriated the band’s contradictory name for this 1968 print portfolio, perhaps because it echoed his combination of hard-edged geometry with the gaudy look of comic books.
Krushenick studied at the Art Students League in the late 1940s and with Hans Hofmann. In 1958, he and his brother John founded the Brata gallery and frame shop, where they exhibited the work of friends and colleagues such as Al Held and George Sugarman. Like Held, Krushenik experimented with rough brushwork and simple geometric shapes. Later he perfected the style seen here—clean-cut brushwork and flat, smooth colors reminiscent of the graphic designs found on boxes of Tide detergent or Brillo pads.
Charmion von Wiegand
The daughter of a foreign correspondent, Charmion von Wiegand grew up in San Francisco and Berlin. Excelling in foreign languages, journalism, art history, and psychoanalysis, she eventually settled in Greenwich Village, where she pursued a dual career as a journalist and a painter of biomorphic abstractions—a popular transatlantic style of the late 1930s.
Early in 1941, she met Piet Mondrian upon his arrival in New York and soon became one of his most ardent disciples, along with Ilya Bolotowsky, Burgoyne Diller, and Harry Holtzmann. Later she studied Tibetan art and religion, extending the mystical beliefs she had held from an early age (her father, like Mondrian, was a Theosophist). In Birth of a Planet, Von Wiegand has abandoned Mondrian’s hard-edged precision in favor of centralized, ethereal imagery recalling the semi-abstract compositions of Tibetan thangkas and mandalas.
James Lee Byars
Deriving from the early, expatriate phase of Byars’s career, his drawings in the NYU Art Collection reflect his interest in Japanese calligraphy and contribute to the longstanding dialogue between American and Asian traditions.
Divided into three separate strips in serial, comic-book fashion, the untitled work above explores the tentative relationship between a large domed shape and a smaller one. In an abstract and intimate performance, the small shape gradually migrates to join the large one. The two shapes then move together to center stage, as if to announce their newly won equilibrium.
During the 1960s, Yayoi Kusama organized erotic and psychedelic Happenings, directing performers to strip off their clothes in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art or to dance naked down Wall Street. Assisted by her friend and supporter Donald Judd, she createdAccumulation sculptures consisting of everyday objects (chairs, a rowboat) covered with hundreds of phallic protrusions, all painted white. In her Mirror Rooms, rows of colored lights reflected in looking-glass walls seem to stretch into infinity.
Before becoming a germinal figure in performance and installation art, Kusama was one of the most original painters of the late 1950s and early ’60s. Her repetitive designs derive from the hallucinations she began suffering as a teenager, seeing dots and patterns covering everything around her. Her watercolors of the early ’50s often include fields of colored dots, either in collective isolation or combined with curving forms that evoke watery organisms observed under a microscope. The heart-shaped form at the center of No. Red A may represent one such sighting—or an organic valentine, anticipating the erotic impulse that would later emerge in Kusama’s performances. Her repeated coupling of monochromy and repetition simultaneously induces both perceptual numbness and spiritual transcendence.
Idols and Shrines
A leading Abstract Expressionist sculptor, Seymour Lipton began his career as a dentist, which provided not only a profitable day job but also the technical skills—acquired in fashioning fillings and braces—that he used in making his welded sculptures. During the 1930s, Lipton made a series of carved wooden sculptures that won critical acclaim for their elegant, rounded forms.
Deeply disturbed by the horrors of World War II, Lipton dramatically altered the character of his work. Turning his attention to epic themes of the life cycle—birth, struggle, death, and rebirth—he began employing fragments that appeared to have been unearthed on archaeological digs. Argosy evokes a ship with a pointed prow and rounded stern, inscribed with the shape of an anchor—evidently referencing the epic voyage undertaken by Jason and the Argonauts in ancient Greek mythology. A screw-like form rises amidships, more like a modern propeller than a schooner’s mast. The ship’s hull has split open ominously, offering up a host of intertwining shapes resembling undulating girders and strange water-borne hatchets.
Richard Stankiewicz is best known for “junk” sculptures of found objects welded together to represent larger forms, as in Picasso’s work of the late 1920s. Trained as a mechanical draftsman, Stankiewicz entered the Navy during World War II. After discharge, he studied painting under Hans Hofmann in New York and then Fernand Léger in Paris, where he also studied sculpture with Ossip Zadkine.
Returning to New York in 1951, Stankiewicz began making figures from bent wire. He soon turned to plumbing fixtures and other industrial detritus lying around the streets of lower Manhattan. We Two Are So Alike belongs to a group of scuptures from the late 1950s in which many small elements project outward from a tubular spine. The shovel-like metal plates may constitute the faces of two figures, one vertical, the other prone, held in tension amid the work’s airy, abstract elegance.
Louis Bourgeois’s Labyrinthine Tower harks back to the blend of myth and psychology found in early works by the New York School. In the legend of the Labyrinth, the hero Theseus descends into a dark maze, kills the Minotaur (part man and part bull) and escapes with the love of Ariadne, a beautiful maiden. The legend suggests that slaying the dark forces of the unconscious is a prerequisite for spiritual growth. Bourgeois upends the myth, transforming the Labyrinth into a tower that rises toward the sky instead of descending into the earth.
Born and raised in France, Bourgeois moved to the United States in 1938 with her husband Robert Goldwater, who taught art history at Queens College and NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. She first gained attention in the late 1940s and ’50s with a series of tall, narrow sculptures resembling abstract totem poles. During the ’60s, her work became more figurative, evoking Surrealist combinations of male and female sexual organs. Anticipating her later art—such as the well-known La Fillette (1968), a more literal representation of phallus, testicles, and labia—Labyrinthine Tower subverts the traditional concept of sculpture as erect form: it remains unclear whether its spiraling segments are rising toward full extension or sinking into flaccidity.
The arc of Tony Rosenthal’s career virtually constitutes a history of modern sculpture. Working initially in Chicago, he carved Art Deco adornments for building exteriors. While stationed in Great Britain during World War II, he discovered the works of Henry Moore. After war’s end, Rosenthal worked in an increasingly abstract style. He spent much of the 1950s creating public sculpture in Los Angeles.
Back in New York, in 1969, Rosenthal was one of five sculptors invited to submit models for a relief to adorn NYU’s new Loeb Student Center. Rosenthal produced this brass sketch, which did not win the commission. Its composition of uneven, abstract rectangular strips with alternating ridges and cavities suggests a link to the elaborate wood-carved altarpieces of the Northern Renaissance, with their rows of deeply undercut figures. By this time, Rosenthal was also making streamlined cubes, columns, and cylinders with hard-edged trenches and craters cut into their surfaces. The best-known of these is Alamo of 1967, the fifteen-foot-high black cube mounted on a traffic island in Astor Place, near NYU. Rosenthal’s cubes suggest a science-fiction future of brutal immensity, relieved by scars and crevices offering footholds for human habitation. Indeed, Alamo evidently inspired the terrifying Borg Cubes in the Star Trek television series.
Trained as an actress, singer, and painter, Louise Nevelson experienced a major turning point at Christmas 1957, when she received a case of liquor as a gift and realized that “the crate, with its cellular divisions … was in itself a sculpture.” At the time, she was 58 years old.
She had long had a flair for drama. In 1931, while traveling in Europe, she studied briefly in the studio of Hans Hofmann and acted in films. Returning to the United States in 1932, Nevelson assisted in Diego Rivera’s New York studio. Her sculpture acquired its distinctive character when she began placing carved and found wooden forms into boxes. The forms’ contours are intensified by the controlled play of light and shadow, and by their interaction with the boxes’ edges. Referencing the partitioned format of traditional altarpieces, her work summons up religious associations in a manner similar to contemporary sculptures by Tony Rosenthal.
An Art of Memory
For Rauschenberg and other young artists impressed by Abstract Expressionism, the New York School’s erasure of hierarchies—the ordering of objects in keeping with everyday visual appearances—was no longer predicated on Pollock’s drips or Bolotowsky’s grid. It could be accomplished more literally by dispersing prefabricated images of popular culture—photographs, printed matter, commercial advertisements—or actual objects along the canvas surface in mutually informing, yet distinctly non-hierarchical, relations.
With its series of rectangular planes arranged asymmetrically, this untitled collage of 1957 parodies the hieratic language of geometric abstraction. Looking back to Cubist collages, Rauschenberg includes photographs of a galloping horse and a Dutch group portrait, along with part of a telegram. He defaces the collaged items by painting a tan square over most of the group portrait and adding a series of gestural marks—some elongated or scribbled like childish finger painting, others smeared horizontally with an overloaded brush—and allows the excess paint to drip downward like the trace of uncontrollable passion, an expressive device that he shares with Norman Bluhm.
Norman Bluhm and Frank O’Hara
A protean personality of the 1950s and early ’60s, Frank O’Hara was active simultaneously as a poet, art critic, and curator at the Museum of Modern Art. The list of his friends, lovers, and collaborators—including painters Norman Bluhm and Larry Rivers—leaves one breathless.
One rainy Sunday in October 1960, O’Hara was visiting Bluhm in his Manhattan studio when they collaborated on the poem-paintings on view in New York Cool. Making a point about a Prokofiev sonata playing on the radio, Bluhm began painting on a sheet of paper in his distinctive style of overloaded brushstrokes exploding across the surface and releasing rivulets of excess paint, the leftover traces of physical and emotional exertion. O’Hara promptly responded by scribbling a few words on the same sheet. By the time they were finished, the two men had completed 27 collaborative works (of which 22 are in the NYU Art Collection).
Motherwell and Frankenthaler
The marriage of Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell in 1958—the year these two collages were created—was a union of two remarkable talents. Motherwell was one of the most gifted artists of the first generation Abstract Expressionists. His collage is a miniature version of one of his dramatic canvases of the period, with a broad swath of black paint rising up and threatening to assault the viewer. The diamond shape inscribed within the white rectangle challenges the flood of black paint, asserting that reason and even elegance may resist the uncontrolled flow of the id.
Frankenthaler founded the new school of Color Field Painting that emerged in the late 1950s. This collage is strikingly different from her poured works, with their thinned expanses of glowing color. Here the dense and clotted forms and splashes of color recall the cave paintings at Lascaux or Altamira. It is a diary entry from the journal of not only a sophisticated Manhattanite, but also a time traveler pursuing her art back to its origins in prehistory.
The importance of Miriam Schapiro’s paintings of the 1950s and ’60s has generally been obscured by the historic impact of the pioneering feminist art that she began making in the 1970s as well as her role in organizing, with Judy Chicago, the germinal Womanhouseexhibition in Los Angeles in 1972.
The daughter and wife of painters, Schapiro was never in any doubt about her artistic vocation. But while her husband, the talented and articulate painter Paul Brach, was quickly accepted in the downtown New York art world, Schapiro found herself relegated to the shadows—even as her canvases (the best among them gestural abstractions based on Old Master paintings) were being shown at major New York galleries.
Vicissitudes of the Grid
The son of immigrants who fled Russia after the Revolution, Ilya Bolotowsky was trained in Impressionism at the National Academy of Design. He discovered modern art in 1933 while visiting A. E. Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art at New York University (located on the future site of the Grey Art Gallery), later characterizing his work of this period as a fusion of Piet Mondrian and Joan Miró—both represented in Gallatin’s collection. Bolotowsky was evidently also inspired by Picasso’s Studio of 1927–28 (on view at the Museum of Modern Art from 1935 onward), with its heavy black outlines and its geometric forms lying flat within the picture plane. Employed by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s, he executed major mural projects for hospitals and housing projects.
Bolotowsky’s Large Architectural of 1951 looks simultaneously in two directions: backward to the geometric abstraction of the Art Deco era, and forward to the Minimal grid of the 1960s. Its title announces Bolotowsky’s continuing interest in mural painting—a genre that became a hallmark of corporate lobbies during the 1950s and ’60s. Although he did not attract such lucrative commissions, Bolotowsky did create a 45-foot-long mural for the Cinema I and II movie theaters on Third Avenue, across the street from Bloomingdale’s department store. Unfortunately, the mural was removed when the theaters were renovated in 2004.
A key participant in the New York School, Robert Goodnough was an early member of their famous Club. But he was never really an Abstract Expressionist, his work remaining closer to the late Cubism of Hans Hofmann and Amédée Ozenfant—both important models during his early art studies. Goodnough taught art at NYU from 1950 through 1953.
Figuration seems to linger behind Goodnough’s abstract forms, and his rejection of allover composition, which he equated with landscape painting, sets him apart from his abstractionist colleagues. Derived from his experiments with collage, Large Rectangles Large looks like a gestural abstraction at first glance, but closer inspection reveals how carefully and deliberately he planned it. Loose brushwork, semi-visible underlayers, and untouched drips of paint reveal the process of careful adjustment by which he arrived at the work’s seemingly casual perfection.
By 1967, Frank Stella had begun creating his Protractor paintings, complex arrangements of interlacing, rainbow-colored curves. But for his contemporaneous Black Series lithographs, made at the pioneering print workshop Gemini G.E.L., he decided to revisit the abstract themes in his breakthrough 1958–59 Black Paintings.
The lithographs in Black Series I, on view in New York Cool, reproduce the compositions of the original Black Paintings, whose bands ran parallel to their borders. (In Black Series II, the bands run diagonally.) Paradoxically, Stella shrinks the printed images to evoke the original paintings’ monumental scale: the paper’s fifteen-inch height corresponds to a fifteen-foot gallery ceiling, and the image suggests a canvas about twelve feet high—the size of the actual paintings.
Stella began painting in high school and then studied art history at Princeton University. In early 1958, inspired by Jasper Johns’s Flags and Targets—which he had seen at the Leo Castelli Gallery the preceding year—he began painting abstract arrangements of stripes and rectangles. That fall Stella banished color from his pictures. His “negative Pollockism,” as he called it, appeared to many artists and critics like a vicious parody, while his titles included a puzzling array of references: obscure New York bars, jazz songs, Brooklyn tenement buildings, and Nazi propaganda. Over the next few years, Stella experimented with metallic and house paints, ultimately applying this industrial palette to his monumental sculptures.
When she discovered the quiet ecstasy of the grid, Martin was almost fifty years old. Wood #4emits surprising power: despite its small size, repetitive composition, and understated facture, it embodies her pursuit of exhaltation and ecstasy, expressive qualities she admired in Jackson Pollock’s huge dripped canvases.
Born in 1912, Martin grew up amid the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. While studying art education, she discovered her true vocation of painting. After moving to New Mexico in the late 1940s, she painted stark landscapes evoking the transcendent power of nature. During a trip to New York in 1951–52, she saw the work of Milton Avery and Joan Miró, and soon switched to a language of floating biomorphic shapes. In 1957 Martin returned to Manhattan, settling at Coenties Slip, near the South Street Seaport, where she shared a warehouse studio complex with Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jack Youngerman, and also enjoyed the company of neighbors Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
Martin began incorporating found objects such as bolts, knobs, and bottle caps into her paintings, fixing them in unifying grids. Eventually she recognized that the grids alone provided powerful vehicles for the sensation of transcendence. In 1967, Martin suddenly abandoned painting and moved back to New Mexico. After an eight-year hiatus she resumed painting there, going on to achieve worldwide fame but opting to remain in relative seclusion—an industrious hermit dedicated to simplicity and abstraction.
Born in Athens, Chryssa Vardea moved to Paris in 1953 to study art. A year later she migrated to New York. In 1961, she rocketed to art-world stardom with an acclaimed solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery, group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, and a solo display at the Guggenheim.
In her work of the late 1950s, Chryssa often places sculpted letters in grids or scatters them randomly across a panel. Letter H is a small, funky version of one of these reliefs. Some of Chryssa’s reliefs are uncannily similar to Jasper Johns’s letter or number paintings of the same years. The direction of influence is difficult to determine. If the gridded letters of Chryssa’s Bronze Tablets, of 1956–57 appear to derive from Johns’s paintings, his decision to realize some of his compositions as Sculp-metal reliefs (beginning in 1958) may have been suggested by her metallic tablets.
Chryssa claimed that her use of sculpted letters was inspired by Times Square, with its huge signs and flashing lights. This influence became even more visible in 1962, when she began making sculptures with letters fashioned from colored neon tubes. By the mid-’60s, she was one of the leading sculptors working in the new medium of light, along with Stephen Antonakos and Dan Flavin.
In 1965, the figurative, personal content of Schapiro’s Shrines began to look old-fashioned compared to the hard-edged, impersonal abstraction then dominating the art world. Schapiro decided to keep the multi-colored, beveled grids of her earlier Shrines but to suppress the subject matter. In her new series of Sixteen Mirrors paintings, every box is filled with the metallic, mirror-like paint that appears in the Shrines. Instead of proposing definite content, the paintings reflect viewers’ gazes back upon themselves. Like the contemporary sculptures of Judith Gerowitz (later Judy Chicago), Sixteen Mirrors combines hard-edged, “masculine” forms with a “feminine” spectrum of glowing colors.
Derived from a series of collages based on Sixteen Mirrors, Camera Obscura #2 combines brightly colored, beveled frames and squares of gold paint.The squares at the lower left and upper right are inverted images of each other, as are the squares at the upper left and lower right. The work’s meticulous construction from cut out pieces of colored paper prefigures the decorative collages that Schapiro would exhibit as feminist manifestos in the 1970s.
The grid takes on a multitude of guises: circle, cube, chevron, stripe—each providing an opportunity to combine a rigorous, intellectual format with the unconstrained, sensual pleasure of color. Extending and subverting the geometry of the stripe, Richard Kalina’s Luquillosummarizes what was happening in avant-garde painting at the end of the 1960s.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Kalina moved to New York in 1967, where he rented Brice Marden’s loft on Jefferson Street. Seeking new materials, Kalina and his friends shunned Pearl Paint, shopping instead at Industrial Plastics, on the opposite side of Canal Street. For a time, Kalina worked as one of Roy Lichtenstein’s studio assistants, absorbing the irreverent attitude and shiny, industrial look of Pop Art. Then he worked at Leo Castelli’s warehouse and exhibition space at 103 West 108th Street.
Kalina was making stripe paintings and sculpting in fiberglass, creating irregularly shaped works in opposition to Minimalism’s rigid geometries. He soon began combining the two, impregnating his striped canvases with polyester and bending them into folds and swags. InLuquillo (named after a town on Puerto Rico’s north shore), he began with a long, rectilinear striped canvas. Transforming the canvas into a sculpture by careful folding, Kalina disrupts the grid and recaptures the energy of Abstract Expressionism—while avoiding its cult of bravado.