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Carter exhibit is much more than a geometry lesson

Posted 9:17am on Friday, Jul. 02, 2010

There is an emotional coolness to the current exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum that manifests itself physically. The geometric abstractions in "Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920s-50s" are devoid of any representational elements, so the spareness of the 85 objects on view is a welcome experience, much like a gimlet on a steamy summer day -- cold and intense.

These pieces, paintings, sculptures, films, drawings and photographs make no reference to the natural world. They were made by an international cadre of artists in the early 20th century who believed their geometric abstractions spoke to a global utopian future and their work was an international language that knew no borders or politics. World War II and the international bickering in its aftermath soon put an end to this idealized view of oneness.

When the pieces were made, they were not popular and they didn't gain many champions as they aged. Critics and the public found them lacking in passion, and the art establishment put its money and support behind abstract expressionism. There, at least, was some emotion. Over time, the works languished or were lost until late in the century, when they were rediscovered and accorded a semblance of importance.

Most of the geometric abstractionist artists, a good number of them women, were ignored into oblivion. A few, such as Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Josef and Anni Albers, Leon Polk Smith and Ad Reinhardt, managed to engineer successful careers, but most of their contemporaries will be unfamiliar to the viewing audience.

This is one of the reasons the Carter was interested in hosting this show, says the institution's curator of paintings and sculpture, Rebecca Lawton. "While it is a departure for us, there are many artists in this show who we have in our permanent collection -- Calder, Albers and Ferren -- and I felt that these artists don't get enough attention. They are viewed too narrowly. This show talks about the dialog between artists of other nationalities. It made a wonderful brew in the 1920s that continues today."

Hidden history

The impetus for the show began almost 10 years ago when a Newark Museum intern, Mary Kate O'Hare, discovered a 1958 work by Charmion von Wiegand, The Wheel of the Law #83, in the museum's vaults. She saw a compelling painting by a woman artist of whom she had no knowledge.

She found there were more works from the same era buried in Newark's vaults that were similar in style. She began the research that led to this show. What she found was that there were many artists from South America who were pivotal to the geometric abstraction movement but the focus of the art world in the early 20th century was always moving east to west, from Europe to New York and back, never north to south, and seldom included artists from the other Americas unless they made a splash in either Paris or New York City.

Although O'Hare is not writing a revisionist's art history, she is definitely constructing one that more aptly represents the circles of influence that the artists recognized. "I wanted to see if the artists were crossing temporal borders as well as jumping national ones," O'Hare says.

She says she discovered formal geometric abstractionist groups existed in New York City; Sao Paulo; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Montevideo, Uruguay, and that there was great cross-pollination among the members. The title for the show, "Constructive Spirit," comes from the Madi manifesto written by the Argentine abstractionists. A few of the groups, such as Madi, are still active, regularly energized by Brazil's Bienal de Sao Paulo that began in 1951 and continues to this day.

Almost lost

Many of the earliest works of geometric abstraction were destroyed, or suffered innumerable indignities. Two pieces in the show have such checkered history. A painted canvas, Aerial Map, by Arshile Gorky was one of 10 made for an enormous 1936 mural project for the Newark Airport. Only two panels remain and they were found under multiple layers of interior wall paint, the others have vanished. Gegofon, a sculpture by Venezuelan artist Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt), was discovered in a New York pawnshop.

Assembled in the galleries at the Carter, they seem a natural fit with no taint of second-class citizenship about them. They look like a solid group of early modernist works. The pieces by Charles Biederman and Burgoyne Diller become almost kinetic as the artists break the flat picture plane with dimensional additions that fly off the edges and pierce the foreground.

Their works predate the simple dimensional work of the minimalists by almost 20 years. The irregularly shaped canvases of Juan Melé and Raúl Lozza cartwheel across the walls. These artists wanted to break the edges of the frame, saying that its regularity looked too much like a window framing of a fictitious scene. They let the interior of their paintings dictate the outer edges, feeling that this was more truthful. Twenty years later, Frank Stella was doing something similar, only on a larger scale.

Size is one of the telltales that puts these works in the first half of the 20th century. Later, artists used the same shapes, the same flat colors, the same graphic lines, only larger, and bolder, making the artworks in " "Constructive Spirit" look like early examples of many of the "isms" of the 20th century. And they look good, really good, and do not show the years of neglect that they suffered to get this validation.

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

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