Influential Abstract Expressionists shown at Berkeley Art Museum

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Although museums can only show a tiny percentage of their collection at any given time, to hide away your de Kooning, Rothko and Pollock somehow seems criminal. In the Berkeley Art Museum’s exhibit, “Abstract Expressionisms: Paintings and Drawings from the Collection,” the museum brings out some of its most impressive pieces from the mid-20th century art movement.

Displayed in two galleries, the paintings, drawings and sculptures collectively spoke directly to the broad definition of Abstract Expressionism. With colors, lines and forms so packed with energy that they beg to bounce off the canvas, abstract expressionist works highlight the spontaneous application of paints, pencils and other materials to the canvas.

In the first gallery, smaller, seldom-viewed paintings and drawings are exhibited together in mismatched frames and on different heights on the wall. Displayed in close vicinity, two de Koonings, a painting and a lithograph, alone emphasize the diversity of the movement. In “Litho #2 (Waves #2),” black paint spreads across the paper, bleeding towards the bottom of the composition. White negative space interacts with the deep shadows of de Kooning’s brush strokes. Contrastingly, he employs vivid color in “The Marshes,” in which warped yellow figures twist across a green and blue background.

Just a few paintings away, an explosion of rich pigments conquers Norman Bluhm’s canvas in “Untitled (Triptych).” On three canvases, colors in their deepest and fullest hues are generously layered and dripped. His careful manipulation of the paints is evident. Pinks, greens, oranges, blues and purples subtly peek through spots where the pools of color are so dense, they appear black.

While Bluhm’s piece, among others in the exhibit, nears three dimensionality with its thickly applied paint, there are also two sculptures on display. Ibram Lassaw’s “Karuna” mixes brass, copper, nickel-silver, steel and bronze into a figurative piece that combines elements from both ancient and modern art. In the second gallery, “Voltri XIII” by David Smith resembles a broken-down wagon from some alternate universe in the future. Rusted steel forms the wheels and planar geometric shapes that comprise the sculpture. Again, such dissimilar pieces exhibit the profound diversity and far-reaching range of Abstract Expressionism.

In the second gallery, light filters through the windows upon larger paintings. Here, red vibrates alongside dark blue on a canvas that mesmerizes the viewer with its enormity. Layered upon a grey background, the paints become animated in Rothko’s minimal composition. The Rothko sits opposite a work titled “3-Blue” by Sam Francis, which contains clear blue oil rippling along the canvas like water. The placidity of the two paintings resonate back and forth in the center gallery space.

Despite the forceful nature of the individual galleries and of each individual work of art, it would have been more compelling to see the artworks closer together. The two gallery rooms are on opposite corners of the museum, and too spread apart to maintain the exhibit’s power in the interim space. The exhibit did not fully capitalize on the potential for the smaller works on paper to mix with the larger canvases to create a more distilled picture of Abstract Expressionism.

Though the works might have been more effective in one room together, the lush richness of their collection on display is undeniable. While capturing the complete essence of Abstract Expressionism, the exhibit extends the boundaries of the movement to include pieces in unexpected media, colors and techniques. In a long exhale after months of entrapment, these bold works express the deep influence of this art movement loud and clear.

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