WILLIAMSTOWN — Abstract art can be off-putting. Visiting “Make It New: Abstract Painting From the National Gallery of Art, 1950-1975” in the new Clark Center exhibition space at the Clark Art Institute, I overheard a couple of perplexed comments.
One viewer, appraising Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist),” remarked that anybody could do this — and he would, too, if he knew that he could sell his efforts for astronomical prices.
“Make It New” offers great abstract paintings in a vivid, understandable framework, one that honors art history and then sets it aside. After two initial, bracing galleries that lay the groundwork, Harry Cooper, curator and head of modern art at the National Gallery, breaks the art down, gallery by gallery, in basic categories: pattern, texture, and shape.
In a show that addresses the senses, folks who think they don’t “get” abstract art may begin to grasp it. Walking from the first gallery of Abstract Expressionist works into the second gallery of Color Field paintings, you’ll feel the difference. The Ab-Ex painters struggle, tear down, and confront. The Color Field painters welcome you with open arms and offer you a cocktail.
“Make It New” takes its title from modernist poet Ezra Pound’s exhortation. The exhibition, itself a fresh-faced look at the era, examines younger artists’ efforts to push through tradition to originality. Here, Jackson Pollock is the progenitor with whom younger painters wrestle. His work was so original, he once asked of one of his poured canvases, “is this a painting?”
The title also applies to the Clark itself. Founded by Sterling and Francine Clark in 1955, it has a deep collection of 19th-century art, but peters out after the early 20th century. Postwar abstraction is, in essence, new here.
Boy, does it look sharp in the spacious, handsome Tadao Ando-designed galleries. The crisp lines and clean planes of Ando’s modernist design highlight and complement the paintings.
This terrific, quirky show does not try to pass itself off as a survey. It comprises just 35 paintings. Many pivotal figures are not included — Rauschenberg, de Kooning, and Agnes Martin, to name a few.
Instead, Cooper, who organized “Make It New” with David Breslin, the Clark’s associate director of the Research and Academic Program and associate curator of contemporary projects, follows the fillips and twists of ideas — the very definitions of painting — that sprouted from Pollock’s audacious canvases.
It begins, in that first Ab-Ex gallery, by grounding Pollock among his contemporaries: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, and Joan Mitchell. This first gallery is, mostly, a stunner.
Pollock’s electric “Lavender Mist,” nearly 10 feet across, takes center stage. Maybe it takes something this big to truly convey his rigor and daring. There’s no picture, no frame, no figure or ground — just the dazzling ricochet of gestures. Slashes in white and black, dabbles of peach and teal. A dead bug lies encrusted in a blob of black. Rothko’s “No. 1” hangs beside it, with its pulse of red enfolded in shadowy maroon, beneath hovering passages of deep olive — yin to Pollock’s yang.
Joan Mitchell’s “Piano mécanique,” across the gallery, is too like “Lavender Mist.” With its vertical dribbles, it was clearly made on the wall, not the floor, where Pollock worked, but it has the same sense of no center, everything everywhere. Comparatively, it’s thin, effortful.
There’s no way to follow Pollock closely without looking like a copyist. That’s why Cooper chose him. Younger artists borrowed, then expanded upon, his techniques and ideas. Helen Frankenthaler visited Pollock in his studio and started painting on the floor. Pollock flung paint with sticks and squirted it with a basting syringe. Frankenthaler pushed her thinner paint around with brushes and sponges.
Her “Wales” is in the Color Field gallery. Calm and vaguely undulant, it features a long curtain of yellow, bordered, with some bare white, by violet, green, and pulsing blue. It’s summery and sweet, fresh linens wafting on a clothesline, until you arrive at a shimmering, descending clot of brown in the lower right, disrupting the harmony.
Morris Louis, in “Beta Kappa,” reacted against Pollock by leaving the painting’s center neutral, and making controlled pours of lush color in diagonals from the upper corners. Color Field painting, the first major successor of Ab-Ex, still has an ugly-stepsister reputation — but how do you follow the sturm und drang of the New York School, except quietly, with luminous passages of color stepping in for Ab-Ex’s angry, brooding gestures?
The three subsequent galleries enchant, the pattern room most of all. Simon Hantaï took Pollock’s methodology a step beyond, picking the canvas up off the floor, and crumpling and bundling it before covering the outer surface in paint, then unfolding it.
His crackling “Étude” has that no-beginning-or-end quality of a Pollock painting, but with seeping passages of red against white. It could be a botanical pattern, or fluttering insect wings, but there’s no uniform repetition, and the seeping edges imply violence.
It hangs near the impudent “Panneau de Moules (Panel of Mussels),” by Belgian Marcel Broodthaers, who literally covered a panel with mussel shells, and Yayoi Kusama’s mind-bending, squirmy “Infinity Nets Yellow.”
The texture gallery holds the outrageous, googly-eyed, quasi-mechanical near-sculpture “Untitled,” which Lee Bontecou made from, among other things, old conveyor belts from the laundromat downstairs from her studio. A great, black hole protrudes from this canvas; the circles ringing it and the diagonal lines running toward it skew perspective. Where is it coming from? It’s grubby, off-center, and sci-fi, all at once.
The shape gallery tugs toward cool-headed minimalism and nerdy conceptualism, the ultimate reaction to hot-headed, passionate Pollock. One of Jasper Johns’s “Target” paintings is here, and a crisp grid that’s not quite square by Ellsworth Kelly.
Then there’s Al Loving’s gaudy, warm, sprawling “Brownie, Sunny, Dave, and Al.” He’s one of three African-American artists in “Make It New” (along with Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas) who struggled with how to let culture and ethnicity speak through abstraction.
Loving let go of his allegiance to Josef Albers and Kenneth Noland and picked up the quilting skills of his mother and grandmother to make this big, banner-like fabric construction of stained canvas, strips of velvet, and ratty old scraps. It stretches across the wall like a kimono, tiredly lolls down across the floor, and ties up in knots.
He made it in 1972, but even today, somebody might look at it and ask, “is this really a painting?” The answer, for Loving and everyone in this show, is “hell, yes.”Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.