“Lines of Thought: Gestural Abstraction in the BAMPFA Collection,” on display at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through July 3, set itself up with a noble task: Expand the artistic narrative of abstract expressionism to include artists who aren’t old white men. In doing so, it pushed viewers to question how the meaning of abstract expressionist art changes with the canon, growing along generational and cultural axes. Featuring works from the ’50s to the present, the exhibit included artists ranging from Jackson Pollock to Wu Jian’an.
The most palpable feature of these works is the simultaneous presence and absence of the artist’s hand — from the soft-edged color fields of Kenjilo Nanao’s “Boxes in Terra Rose III” and Esteban Vicente’s “Lerma” to the accumulated, scraped and chipped construction of Joan Mitchell’s “High Water” and Gerhard Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild.” Meticulously jazzy scribbles flood Dan Miller’s “Untitled” and Rashid Johnson’s “Untitled Anxious Bruise Drawing,” while quasi-figurative wide-brush swathes sweep across Helen Frankenthaler’s “Before the Caves” and Oliver Lee Jackson’s “Painting (6. 4. 83).” Pollock’s “Number 5, 1950” and Elise Asher’s “To Rilke” teem with drip-poured calligraphic confetti.
Katy Cowan’s work “fluxing, reflecting, lanterns; a flip” pushes this pot-dripped and squeeze-tubed chaos to a catatonic point of embodied calm. The disorder of paint edges upon the order of material as winding lines and blending fields meld into actual rope and twine — unraveling here, binding there. A Berkeley-based artist, Cowan’s work is inspired by the city’s landscape, alternately windswept and burning calm.
There is one piece that doesn’t fit neatly into the canon of gestural abstraction: a yellowed, unassuming and masterful drawing made by Hassel Smith in 1963, while he was teaching at UC Berkeley. It mirrors “The Clash” by Hans Hofmann, who also taught at Berkeley, while pruning it to monochromatic bare-bones. Marks of the artist’s hand in the broad strokes of Hofmann are pared to fingerprints in Smith. Smeared patches of color become streaked arcs, advancing and receding strokes become lone lines. The relation between the marks is as expressive as the marks themselves. Gestural spontaneity gains a measured space to breathe.
If the common thread is the hand, what is the line of difference? Is it something present or something lacking? It is both: a need. What distinguishes the younger works from the masters is a need to surpass the limits of gestural abstraction — the timeless, placeless solipsism — through this very abstraction.
Miller seeks in his layered grids of scrawl to stretch the lone line to a point of emotional expression. Johnson seeks to convey by this same obsessive density a pain and violence beyond what cloth or canvas can suffer. Nanao incorporates the silver leaf used in Japanese screen painting and etches fine red lines across squares of ochre reminiscent of Hanko stamps, the personal seals historically used in lieu of signatures for Asian art and paperwork.
Jian’an’s work surpasses the subjective isolation of the artist implied by abstract expressionist painting; his “500 Brushstrokes #63” is part of a series in which he invited viewers to make calligraphic brushstrokes on traditional rice paper, which he then cut and reassembled as collages.
These newer works invest Hofmann’s aesthetic principle of “push and pull” with a new dimension: as forms emerge and recede from their color, histories emerge and recede from the work. These paintings emerge from the limits of their predecessors, returning to pure color and line a certain place and time and, in doing so, changing the meaning of this place and time.
Asher’s own muse, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote that human thought is hesitation. Here, the poet is proven wrong. There could be no name more apt for the exhibit than “Lines of Thought”: These lines attest to a thought which is spontaneity itself.