Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1949–1960

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In the 1950s, the Guggenheim Museum's then-director James Johnson Sweeney championed what he called the "tastebreakers" of his day—those individuals who "break open and enlarge our artistic frontiers." This decade witnessed the revitalization of experimental art and the advent of fresh and bold styles, a shift that was rather presciently documented and examined in 1952 by French critic Michel Tapié in his book Un art autre (Art of another kind) and an eponymous exhibition. Taking its title from that pivotal study, this collection-based presentation seeks to consider the artistic developments of the post–World War II period and draw greater attention to the lesser-known tastebreakers in the museum's collection alongside those long since canonized.

Abstract Expressionism encompasses a diverse range of postwar American painting that challenged the tradition of vertical easel painting. Beginning in the late 1940s, Jackson Pollock placed his canvases on the floor to pour, drip, and splatter paint onto them. This gestural act, with variations practiced by William Baziotes, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, and others, was termed "Action painting" by critic Harold Rosenberg, who considered it a product of the artist's unconscious outpouring or the enactment of some personal drama.

The New York school expanded in the 1950s with the unique contributions of such painters as James Brooks and Grace Hartigan, and energetic collagist-assemblers Conrad Marca-Relli and Robert Rauschenberg. Other painters eliminated the gestural stroke altogether. Mark Rothko used large planes of color, often to express universal human emotions and inspire a sense of awe for a secular world. Welder-sculptors such as Herbert Ferber and Theodore Roszak are also counted among the decade's pioneering artists.

The postwar European avant-garde in many ways paralleled the expressive tendencies and untraditional methods of their transatlantic counterparts, though their distinct cultural contexts differed. For artists in Spain, abstract art signified political liberation. Dissenting Italian artists correspondingly turned to abstraction against the renewed popularity of politicized realism. French artist Jean Dubuffet's spontaneous approach, Art Brut (Raw art), retained figurative elements but radically opposed official culture, instead favoring the unprompted and direct works of untrained individuals. His work influenced the Cobra group (1948–51) founded by Karel Appel, Asger Jorn, and other artists from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. The Cobra artists preferred thickly painted surfaces that married realism to lively color and expressive line in a new form of "primitivism."

Eventually taking root in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain, Art Informel (Unformed art) refers to the antigeometric, antinaturalistic, and nonfigurative formal preoccupations of many European avant-garde artists, and their pursuit of spontaneity, looseness of form, and the irrational. Art Informel is alternatively known by several French terms: Abstraction lyrique (Lyrical Abstraction), Art autre (Art of another kind), matiérisme (matter art), and Tachisme (from tache, meaning blot or stain). The movement includes the work of Alberto Burri and Antoni Tàpies, who employed unorthodox materials like burlap or sand and focused on the transformative qualities of matter. Asian émigré artists Kumi Sugaï and Zao Wou-Ki were likewise central to the postwar École de Paris (School of Paris) and melded their native traditions with modern painting styles.

By the end of the 1950s, artists such as Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, and Piero Manzoni were exploring scientific, objective, and interactive approaches, and introduced pure monochrome surfaces. Other abstractionists engaged viewers' senses and explored dematerialization, focusing on optical transformations as opposed to the art object itself, and investigating the effects of motion, light, and color.

Drawn from the Guggenheim's holdings, Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1949–1960 celebrates this vital period in the museum's history leading up to the inauguration of its Frank Lloyd Wright–designed building in October 1959. In 1953, Sweeney aptly summarized the postwar prognosis: "Yesterday is not quite out of sight; tomorrow is not yet clear in view. But the atmosphere of vitality is unquestionable."


This exhibition is organized by Tracey Bashkoff, Curator, Collections and Exhibitions, and Megan Fontanella, Assistant Curator, Collections and Provenance.


The Leadership Committee for Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1949–1960 is gratefully acknowledged for its support.

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