Jacqueline Cotter (b. 1921), “San Miguel” 1992, Pencil over oil on Mylar. Collection of Karen Segal. 

Two concurrent exhibitions of abstraction took place last fall in Philadelphia. Together, they covered every conceivable form within the historical canon of abstract painting. After viewing both surveys, I was left wondering how the “avant garde” had persevered for so long amidst the new media and the anti-aesthetic. Both shows leaned towards the all inclusive and tried to expand the definition of abstraction, but the quality was mixed and the thesis confused.

It could be that neither show defined its territory well enough. The Woodmere Museum’s Flirting with Abstraction confined itself to a history of Philadelphia Abstraction, as might be expected, and began with  artists born in the 19th century. The show announced (with great fanfare) a new donation to the museum, the collection of painter/collector Karen Segal. Intermixed was some of The Woodmere’s own collection – yes, they collect work by local artists – making for an enthusiastic attempt to define the area’s best. This gave valuable historic context – but what hung on the walls was a random assortment of artists who went to PAFA or PCA (what is now University of the Arts).

The exhibition had high points and made connections, but also included much “period” work or regional non-objective work of little interest beyond our borders. The newer abstraction looked fresher by comparison (if cramped) and included Sam Maitin, Bill Scott and Moe Brooker, all talented practitioners. The well-known Edna Andrade (1917-2008) was included, whether this unified the show or not.

Adjacent to Flirting with Abstraction was work by Mary G. L. Hood (1886-1917) and her daughter (1908-1967), another related figurative abstraction show. Both were trained painters but not original in the least, as most of the work was derivative of Matisse and Cezanne. Fortunately, Flirting with Abstraction raised the bar, updating the nature of “non-representational” from learned, “academic” modernism to the present. In fact, the saving grace of the show may have been the inclusion of those who graduated in this decade: Jonathan Ecker, (b. 1980) is one; also local reductivists Mike Stack (b. 1959) and Astrid Bowlby (b. 1961).

The Woodmere’s towering circular main room and the balcony were packed. A dense neo-expressionist painting by Louise Fishman was allowed to wither on a wall, suffocating. Strangely, there was a painting by her mother, Gertrude Fisher-Fishman. Following family traits is interesting, but didn’t add to the overall strength of the show. I want to make it clear that Fishman is a mature, “contemporary” utilizer of the brush and is a cut above. Having said all this, the Woodmere utilized vast efforts in organizing these shows and much was learned while trying to make sense of them. They have also updated their galleries further since this writing.

The show at Crane Arts was more up to date from the onset. Called Abstraction (to the power of infinity), it was also overly ambitious, set on representing the  work by members of the American Abstract Artists, a venerable organization dating back to the Armory Show. Included were in excess of 76 artists! On the whole, it was equally scattershot and one wonders why there is no remaining central tenant to unify all the varied approaches to abstraction. Put together by hard-working Brooklyn curator, Janet Kurnatowski, it attempted to run the gamut and prove there is more to the abstract than painting.

The show seemed to have difficulty putting all the permutations under one roof and insisted on including video, installation, and computer animation to make a point. The Ice Box space can be an unforgiving white hole that sucks the life out of flat, modernist work. It turned small paintings into postage stamps. Too bad; because there was much to appreciate on the walls. Somewhere in this room was a painting by uber-curator, Richard Storr, of all people. (Does he have time to paint? Amazing.)

Abstraction pushed to the limits? Unfortunately, the “ad infinitum” is hard to justify. It was clear that the term abstraction was simply inappropriate to some of the video and computer based imagery, just as a resin piece by Stuart Netsky at the Woodmere had nothing to do with tedious lineage back to Cezanne. As with the Woodmere, the definition of abstract painting was not fixed. Just because something is non-representational doesn’t mean it is necessarily abstract by definition. Concept art can be nearly invisible, a mere idea, but that does not make it “abstract” in the same sense. (Is “Spiral Jetty” abstract?)

The term “Abstraction” is used to refer to the break-up of realism and the destruction of the picture plane’s “window.” For most of the Twentieth Century it served as the opposite side of the representational coin. Now, it is still linked (technically) with a flat surface and (historically) with inferred two-dimensional space, but it is not a defining factor. It is also infinitely more complex and individualized. Stop by the Larry Becker Gallery any day of the week for a beautiful example of such work exhibited in a perfect venue.

Cheryl B. Harper

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