6 rooms in Constellations
Explore the diverse range of approaches in the art of post-war America
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.
Art in Reconfiguring American Abstraction
Light Red Over Black
In his mature work, Rothko abandoned specific reference to nature in order to paint images with universal associations. By the late 1940s, he had developed a style in which hazy, pulsating rectangles float within a vertical format. He explained that these shapes 'have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognises the principle and passion of organisms'.
Gallery label, August 2004
Willem de Kooning
De Kooning's boldly expressive style, with its thick gestural brushstrokes, meant that he was often categorised as an Abstract Expressionist. However his paintings often include recognisable figures, even if they are barely discernable. The central figure in The Visit is a woman with her legs spread out. In the right-hand corner is a shape that could be either the woman's outstretched hand, or a face in profile looking over her. The title was suggested by one of De Kooning's assistants, who thought that the composition resembled a medieval painting of the Annunciation.
Gallery label, July 2008
Like Morris Louis, Noland has worked in series, executing several works which explore a single motif. 'Gift' is one of several paintings, made in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which use a simple target form as their basic idea. Unlike Jasper Johns's target paintings, made around the same time, Noland does not intend the image to be read as a target. Instead, this is a purely formal device, providing Noland with a ready made structure for his painting. The concentric rings also concentrate the effect of the colour. In these ways, Noland's use of flattened forms and colour deliberately avoids any sense of narrative or personal expression.
Gallery label, September 2004
Kora 1963 is a large sculpture consisting of various irregular steel sections that form a broadly fan-like shape, starting narrowly at the bottom and widening at the top. The metal sheets are all single-coloured in lilac purple, chocolate brown and various tones of green (mint, avocado, lime and dark moss), with both plain and metallic finishes, while some are uncoloured, retaining their bare polished surfaces. It is immediately apparent that these are car parts, faceted and fragmented, with visible signs of wear and tear including rust and scratch marks. The sections have been bent, crushed and twisted and then bolted and welded together to form a dramatic abstract shape. The piece is not inscribed by the artist and requires a large, low plinth when displayed.
Black Sun is a rectangular, horizontally oriented work on paper that is over a metre wide. It features a bold, abstract image of the sun and its emanating rays of light, all rendered in a deep black tone. A ball at the top right corner of the composition signifies the body of the sun, from which large black zig-zags extend, starting with narrow points near the sun and broadening out to thick mid-sections in the lower-middle of the paper before tailing off in faint brushstrokes in the left of the work. There is another black circle beneath the sun, positioned between two of the zig-zagged light rays, and a thick hollow triangle hovers in the white space below it.
Parts of the Face: French Vocabulary Lesson
Rivers's early work was influenced by Abstract Expressionist painting, in particular its emphasis on free brushwork and spontaneous effects of surface. While retaining this expressive, painterly style, during the 1950s he began to paint portraits of his family and friends. This painting is of the artist's wife Clarice. It was done while they were living in Paris and attending French lessons. It was inspired by a drawing used in one of the lessons to teach vocabulary for parts of the face. The drip marks and broad brushstrokes make an explicit reference to Abstract Expressionist painting. But in contrast, here this emotive style is deliberately linked with a mundane subject.
Gallery label, September 2004
Yellow Sky is a large abstract interpretation of a landscape that comprises deeply coloured, simplified shapes. The predominant colours are yellow, dark grey, blue-green and black. A band of deep yellow – the ‘yellow sky’ of the work’s title – forms the top of the composition and underneath it is a strip of black resembling a horizon. This is flanked by two large, grey, boulder-like shapes, between which runs a yellow vertical strip reminiscent of a pathway, lending depth to the image. A strip of pale blue-green meanders across the canvas under the grey rocky shapes, beginning at a ‘pool’ on the left and moving in a broadly diagonal direction, splitting the canvas horizontally into roughly two parts. The lower part of the canvas bears a further expanse of yellow which, defined by the winding, river-like line, takes the shape of a mountainous region or plain. The areas of paint vary in tone while the overall effect is of a composition that adheres to the flatness of the picture plane.
After studying calligraphy in China and Japan, Tobey developed a technique of painting with rapid brushstokes, which he called ‘white writing’. Northwest Drift is one of several works that reflect his meditative response to landscape. He wrote: ‘Seattle where I painted this picture is a place of virginal winds, air currents and intermingled seasons... Gray skies, gray water make one conscious of this color and I have used a series of gray tones which seem so indigenous to the locale.’
Gallery label, November 2005
Lute and Molecules
Lute and Molecules is a large screenprinted and hand painted still life on paper depicting a stringed wooden instrument alongside models of molecular structures. The underlying screenprinted section of the work provides the outlines of these shapes in an intricate graphic design in fine black line. In the top left corner, a ball-and-stick molecule model is shown, comprising a series of filled black circles, representing atoms, linked by thin straight lines, representing chemical bonds. Beneath this appears a small cross-section diagram of a molecule, showing similar circular atoms with swirling outlines. These motifs are partly covered by the lute, which stretches the width of the print. The neck and pegbox of the instrument fill the left of the composition, joining the rectangular soundboard that dominates the right, with its delicately rendered strings, frets, bridge and a sound hole with an ornate grille. The black outlines of the lute and molecules are overlaid with watercolour paint that has been applied in an imprecise manner. A dark blue-grey wash covers a large rectangular section around the molecules, with two of the atoms coloured dark blue and two bright yellow. Dark brown paint roughly overlays the whole image of the lute, except for the sound hole, which is painted a deep blue. The work is inscribed with the artist’s name in the bottom right corner.
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Shown as a looped projection in a darkened room, Empire 2002 is a silent 16 mm film that is divided into six distinct sections: four sequences of varying lengths that explore objects and shapes, and two longer parts (each of around seven minutes) focusing on individual rooms. The first section features a grainy black and white image of a grasshopper on a leaf, with the exposure of the image gradually altering so that the insect changes from being a glowing form to almost merging with the dark background. In the second section the camera slowly moves through the organic forms of a plaster sculpture, before the film cuts to the third and briefest section (lasting less than a minute) featuring images, occasionally blurred as the camera lens shifts, of a geometric structure made up of a thin black framework. The fourth section of Empire is the film’s only colour sequence, with the images mostly appearing in an orange tint, although some brief parts are tinted either blue, purple or green. This section begins with a close-up of two dark vertical lines on a lighter background, an image that slowly dissolves into a frontal view of a living room containing furniture and paintings. This interior is subsequently presented from different angles – including upside down – in rhythmic panning sequences. The fifth section contains images of a three-dimensional spinning crystalline structure that seems to be travelling closer to the viewer until its edges move beyond the pictorial frame. The sixth and final section features shots of an octagonal Rococo-style room, with the camera paying close attention to various architectural elements such as the chandelier, mirrors and wall panelling. Tate’s copy of Empire is number seven in an edition of seven plus two artist’s proofs.
Art in this room
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