It is only fitting that the inaugural show in the Johnson Museum's new gallery for contemporary art should be drawn from the collection of Cornell Board of Trustees Chairman Peter Meinig, Class of 1961, and his wife Nancy, Class of 1962, who have already done so much for Cornell University and will continue to be an intricate part of its history, as they will lead the University's efforts to celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2015.
Bursts of Light and Rifts of Darkness focuses on works by five of the central figures of abstract expressionism, Adolph Gottlieb, Clyfford Still, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. Although the styles and approaches to painting varied considerably among the artists of abstract expressionism, this first specifically American movement can be broadly described by abstract forms, expressive brushwork, and monumental scale, with an all-over composition that doesn't have any one privileged focus. Products of their time and place—New York after World War II—the abstract expressionists wanted to express their mental and emotional states through their paintings. Harold Rosenberg, one of several influential art critics to champion the movement in the 1940s and '50s, spoke of abstract expressionist paintings no longer as windows on the world but as fields for action: "At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event." Thus a new generation of American artists began to emerge who were referred to interchangeably as action painters or abstract expressionists, and who would influence future art movements that were either in direct response to or reaction against their own.
The drawings by Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning and the painting by Arshile Gorky included here clearly show the influence of European modernist movements, such as expressionism, surrealism, and cubism, that had been brought to the United States by the many artists that fled the rise of Nazism in Europe before and during WWII. But it is in the large-scale paintings by Adolph Gottlieb and Clyfford Still that we can witness the energy and push-and-pull that abstract expressionism is characterized by. Gottlieb's painting Rising is a superb example of his well-known "Burst" paintings—often referred to as imaginary landscapes—that became his signature style beginning in the 1960s, where the top half of the painting is dominated by haloed discs that hover over the bottom half, composed of gestural splashes of black paint applied with a broad brush. It is particularly exciting to be able to include a very fine example of Clyfford Still's work in this exhibition, as, due to the artist's tight control over his work during his lifetime, the number of Stills in private and public collections is surprisingly small compared to that of other artists from the period. 1948 No. 1 (PH 320) is an early example of Still's signature style that often involves brooding fields of color becoming turbulent with flashes of energy, like the bolt of red cutting through the top half of this canvas.
Paintings from this period of American art represent a significant gap in the permanent collection of the Johnson Museum. We are therefore particularly grateful to Peter and Nancy Meinig for their generosity in lending these great works of art to share with the Cornell and Ithaca communities.
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art