THE FIFTIES -- At the Hirshhorn through September 21.
"'Beautiful' is a term that rarely can be applied to painting anymore," said Elaine de Kooning about 20 years ago. "the struggle with oneself that now produces art is more likely to leave harsh, even ugly tracks."
"The Fifties: Aspects of Painting in New York," the current Hirshhorn exhibit dedicated to the New York School of the 1950s, does nothing to refute her assessment of Abstract Expressionism. It does, however, offer a good overview of the movement, plus a look at some paintings that seem uncharacteristic of a school usually associated with names like Pollock, Kline, Rothko and Reinhardt.
The exhibit, of 67 paintings by 33 artists, starts with works that seem relatively simple without the context of the entire movement. These lightly stroked oil paintings from the early 1950s, (for example, Hans Hoffman's "Magenta and Blue" and Robert Rauschenberg's "Basketball Court") strike a contrast with canvases from the end of the decade. In the later works, many types of media, from paint to spackling, have been slapped-down, scraped on and piled up with a palette knife, (as in Michael Goldberg's "Red Sunday Morning" and Jules Olitski's "Moliere's Chair II").
By including a few realistic figurative paintings by Fairfield Porter and Grace Hartigan, the Hirshhorn show sets out to prove that the Fifties weren't all abstraction and gesture. (After all, the exhibit is subtitled "Aspects of Painting in New York.") In addition, we get a chance to see the two de Koonings, Willem and Elaine, together in one room. (Elaine was obviously influenced by her husband, but her style is more flowing and graceful than Willem's. Just compare her "Basketball Players" to his "Woman.")
The artists of the New York School were deadly serious about their work, but they were still capable of revealing a sense of humor. Some of the wryer paintings in this exhibit are Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Painting," Franz Kline's "Accent Grave," and Barnett Newman's "United, Number One."
The show proves that there's more to this particular movement then meets the eye. Or as the late Clyfford Still once remarked, "Hell, it's not just about painting -- any fool can put color on canvas."