This display brings together works by North American artists made after 1945. The period is known for the development of abstract expressionist painting, characterised by gestural brushstrokes and the impression of spontaneity. The supposed triumph of this abstract movement obscured the diverse range of approaches that coexisted in North American art in this period. This display accentuates, instead, the uncertain boundaries and persistent connections between abstract and figurative tendencies in mid-century North American art.
The starting point of the display is Light Red Over Black 1957 by Mark Rothko. The work avoids specific references to nature and is typical of the artist's compositions expressed as hazy fields of intensely sombre colour. The pulsating red and black forms suggest an interplay between light and depth, as if we are looking through a window. The works of Milton Avery, John Chamberlain and Carmen Herrera create bold abstract shapes without disguising their recognisable content. Paintings by Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers combine figuration and portraiture with the techniques of gestural abstraction.
Although such dialogues between abstraction and figuration were widespread in North America at this time, artists that seemed to eliminate the recognisable world came to dominate its history. The art critic Clement Greenberg was central in promoting abstraction's supposed dominance and this display includes Kenneth Noland's Gift 1961–2, which he once owned. The continued influence of Greenberg's taste is further engaged by Paul Sietsema's Empire 2002. This work includes a reconstruction of Greenberg's art-filled living room as it was seen in Vogue magazine in 1964, once of the many popular sources that helped promote abstract art over a more diverse range of styles.
Curated by Dr Alex Taylor and presented as part of Refiguring American Art, a Tate Research initiative supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.