American Abstract Artists Celebrate the First Fifty Years

 

American Abstract Artists Celebrate the First Fifty Years

Geierhaas, Franz. “American Abstract Artists Celebrate the First Fifty Years” Journal of the Print World, Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer 1987, p. 14.

Any organization composed of artists which survives a decade is worth noticing. When a group of artists can gather to celebrate 50 years of their existence, it is something truly special. Both Die Bruckeand Der Blaue Reiter barely made it into second decades. Why has this group of American Abstract Artists survived for 50 years? Susan C. Larsen in her introduction to the Fiftieth Anniversary Portfolio mentions several reasons for this unusual longevity:

“Primarily an exhibiting society, the AAA created an open and generally egalitarian forum for the exhibition of abstract and non-objective art stressing the common bond between artists who understood form as a vital physical and visual vehicle for content. The AAA has been for most of its history, a remarkably democratic organization tolerant of many points of view and, in recent years, the scope of its exhibitions has seemed to widen, including a variety of styles, attitudes to form, and a broad philosophical base which can include the aesthetic, the mathematical, the scientific and even the mystical.”

The reasons for establishing the group in the first place had to do with a widespread resistance to, and ignorance of, the modernist revolution in Europe during the first three decades of the twentieth century. During the thirties in ever increasing numbers due to Hitler’s rise in power and his hostility towards modernism in art, European avant-gardists such as Piet Mondrian, Fernand Leger and Lazio Moholy-Nagy landed on these shores and supported and joined this courageous group of abstract artists. George L.K. Morris, Harry Holtzmann and Carl Holty organized meetings and, in the fall of 1936, the American Abstract Artists was founded. Burgoyne Diller who at the time was [Project Supervisor] of the WPA Mural Division in New York [City] became the group’s leader and was able to employ a number of these modernists in his program. A.E. Gallatin was an early ardent supporter of American modernists. At his Gallery of Living Art at New York University he exhibited many of AAA’s works, wrote about them and contributed to their cause. Gertrude Greene, Alice T Mason and Esphyr Slobodkina belonged to the most energetic group of exhibition organizers, publication- and symposia- directors. (The significant role of American women in support of the arts has not been written; it is a unique American phenomenon!)

Another special aspect of the American Abstract Artists is that they published a major portfolio to celebrate their founding and now, fifty years old, they published another major portfolio to commemorate this milestone. The former portfolio, supervised by Vaclav Vytlacil, a founding member of AAA, and teacher at the Art Student League, consisted of 30 lithographs (the entire membership of AAA at that time was 39). The Fiftieth Anniversary Portfolio contains 44 original lithographs by that many members of AAA. (Current membership stands at 70). Two artists have the distinction of being represented in both portfolios: Esphyr Slobodkina and Ibram Lassaw.

Any publisher of original print-portfolios would consider it a daunting task to produce a portfolio with 44 participating artists. AAA set up a Publications Committee in 1984. This group developed the format and rules for this mamouth undertaking. Every current member was invited to submit one design for a black and white lithograph. The edition has 140 numbered copies. Each print has been individually numbered and signed by the artist. Ten additional copies designated A/P have been reserved for each artist. The prints are dated 1986 and 1987. Print size is 12 3/4″ x 9 3/4″. (When will American publishers ever learn to give sizes in metric terms?) The paper used is Arches Vellum, 200 grams. Not every artist in the AAA is a printmaker or even primarily a printmaker. The astonishingly high number of 44 participants indicates a keen interest in the project. Artists prepared their images on mylar sheets. These were then sent to L’Atelier Frank Bordas in Paris where the images were transferred onto metal plates. The plates were then mounted over a lithostone on a motor driven lithographic press. Since we are dealing with moments in art history, it seems worth mentioning that this same press had been used by Bordas’ grandfather, Fernand Mourlot, to print works by Braque, Magritte, Miro and Picasso. Several of the AAA members went to Paris to help supervise the printing, chief among them was John Goodyear who had prior experience with the superbly able printers at the Bordas Studio. The result of painstaking attention to detail and quality shows in the finished prints. They are immaculate and most are really very fine artistic creations. The finished edition had to be shipped back to the United States where the artists—many of them fortunately residents of the New York Metropolitan area—had to number and sign them.

A handsome portfolio cover was produced in the color gris fumé which enhances the attractiveness of the “package” considerably. Naomo Boretz and John Goodyear of the Publications Committee must be congratulated on a task magnificently completed. As a footnote, I should mention that they tried to find printers in the United States to do the job but found it would have cost many time more than the Paris printers’ bill. When asked about the financial arrangements for this publication, Goodyear told me that each artist was assessed $50 for which he or she then received one complete portfolio. Some bills have still to be paid and intake from sales will help defray the remaining cost. During the summer of 1987 the Condeso-Lawler Gallery on Greene Street in Soho will exhibit the entire portfolio.[1]

When 44 individual artists are involved in producing black/white lithographs one might expect a great variety of images, levels of germaneness to the imposed medium and perhaps even a certain monotony; after all, same size, same (lack of) color, all abstract. The good news is that if such fears were held, they were held for naught. The prints show vitality, originality and almost all transcend the character of “Pflichtubung” (required exercise) and are a real pleasure to behold. Just the same, every viewer will have some favorites. Mine include Richard Anuszkiewicz’s Transl’umina Graphic, a very strong quadratic statement; Ruth Eckstein’s Portais, which shows a slightly ajar gate against a rich background; Helen Gilbert, a Hawaiian artist, produced Study for Square Dancer in which fluid lines are boxed in rectangular configurations. Gilbert spent considerable time in Paris helping to supervise the printing of the editions. As a sort of afterthought, I find it strange to use titles in which figurative or representational meaning is conveyed when the work is meant to be abstract! It is somewhat like singing Lutheran hymns in a Roman Catholic service! (I am told that in the new spirit of ecumenism this is exactly what sometimes happens.) Perhaps the sharp dialectical battle lines between abstract and figurative and representational are not always apparent any longer. Heidi Glück’s Untitled (wisely so) print is a true minimalist statement with much impact; John Goodyear’s contribution is called Drawings and contains 17 little squares all arranged on top of one another—totem pole style—each containing some form, some suspiciously figurative. Bud Hopkin’s Untitled uses calligraphic elements reminiscent of Chinese kanchi (which are totally abstract to us, the non-Chinese readers, but what about the Chinese?); James Juszcyk’s print Haiku Clouds does not only give away his interest in Japanese and Zen elements by the title but, according to Goodyear, he was hard to reach during the production months since he actually was staying at a Zen monastery in Japan. A large rectangle contains a series of black and white bars, perfectly balanced (i.e. at the very verge of being unbalanced). Leroy Lamis sent John Goodyear a computer generated image with the almost contradictory title: Untitled: Computer Generated Image. Is the latter part actually a title as in “the medium is the message?” Goodyear had to have it transferred onto a plate and, with permission of the artist, darkened the outlines so as to obtain sufficient contrast in the litho. I also liked Mary Obering’s slightly wavy lines arranged in near parallel pairs. She also gives her print the Untitled label. Hiroshi Murata’s Untitled finds this artist again and fruitfully occupied in the explorations of his chosen universe of patterns. In recent shows I have detected a movement away from hard-edged geometric forms towards more fluidity of line.

It is fitting, I believe, to close this celebratory article and review by letting Naomi Boretz and John Goodyear have the last word (excerpted with their permission from the introductory statement accompanying the Fiftieth Anniversary Print Portfolio), to be followed by the roll call of participants of both portfolios:

“As in the 1937 Portfolio, constructivist tendencies predominate. Some current works are more mechanistic, employing “found” patterns and even computer generated imagery. In other works, brushstroke, drip, and gesture recall that abstract expressionism—or, more closely, neo-expressionism—which surrounds us; many artists here also employing a sensitive line and a fluidity not clearly evident in the1937 prints. The are few overt reference to the figurative images still prevalent (and perhaps unexpected) in some works of the thirties, whose creators were so militant about abstraction. Subjectivity exists in the new work of the eighties, but feeling is produced by more formal means.

“Although they dared to break with many traditions (as has been well documented) some of the AAA artists represented in the 1937 portfolio built there compositions with a balance of black, white and grey reminiscent of traditional/ figurative work. Now, even this kind of moderation is avoided as the AAA artists represented in the 1987 Portfolio employ exaggerated expanses of black, or all encompassing greys, or extremely large areas of empty space. In these current prints, opposites are juxtaposed more vigorously; new kinds of opposition have been invented. Hard edges dissolve into soft; impulsiveness gives way to thoughtfulness; rigid structure seems to move, through the dynamics of optics or even “cinematic” repetition. Many of the images pit the flatness of the page against a dense, vegetal build-up of space. Some of the images hover in the middle of the page; others meander off the edge of the allotted space, implying an extension of the border.

“More than a few of the artists included in this new Portfolio have built reputations as printmakers over decades of hard work. Others have seldom or never made a print. The result is that the prints function differently. Some reveal a sophisticated utilization of lithography, while others have the freshness of a notebook sketch.

“Most of the American Abstract Artists members appear to accept that the basic battle of abstraction has indeed been won. The job is now to make an art that make sense to oneself, to go further in one’s own direction than ever before.”

1937 Portfolio participants:
Rosalind Bengelsdorf, Ilya Bolotowsky, Harry Bowden, Byron Browne, George Cavallon, A. N. Christie, Werner Drewes, Herzl Emmanuel, Balcomb Greene, Gertrude Greene, Hananiah Harari, Carl Holty, Ray Kaiser, Paul Kelpe, M. Kennedy, Ibram Lassaw, Agnes Lyall, Alice Mason, George McNeil, George L. K. Morris, John Opper, Ralph M. Rosenborg, Louis Schanker, Charles G. Shaw, Esphyr Slobodkina, Albert Swinden, R. D. Turnbull, Vaclav Vytlacil, Frederick J. Whiteman, W. M. Zogbaum.

1987 Portfolio participants:
L. Alcopley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Will Barnet, Naomi Boretz, Jean Cohen, Robert Conover, Nassos Daphnis, Ruth Eckstien, Suzy Frelinghuysen, Vito Giacalone, Helen Gilbert, Heidi Glück, John Goodyear, James Gross, Paul Heald, Budd Hopkins, Ward Jackson, James Juszczyk, Harold Krisel, Leroy Lamis, Ibram Lassaw, Jane Logemann, Vincent Longo, Oscar Magnan, Katinka Mann, Jeanne Miles, Brenda Miller, Hiroshi Murata, Judith Murray, Mary Obering, Henry Pearson, Lucio Pozzi, Joan Webster Price, Raquel Rabinovich, Leo Rabkin, Ce Roser, Irene Rousseau, James Seawright, Louis Silverstein, Esphyr Slobodkina, Helen Soreff, Peter Stroud, Merrill Wagner, Mac Wells.

Notes

  1. A mailing address and information about purchasing the AAA 50th Anniversary Print Portfolio through Condeso-Lawler Gallery and American Abstract Artists were included in the review. That information has been omitted because it is out of date. Inquiries about AAA Print Portfolios can be made through this website.