When I was in New York for the SongFusion debut concert recently, I spent the afternoon at the MOMA, looking at the Ab Ex show, Ab Ex as in Abstract Expressionist. It is a wonderful show, with some very famous paintings (“Vir Heroicus Sublimis” of Barnett Newman, and De Kooning’s “Woman” are just two examples) plus a number of pieces that were new to me. In the latter category, I liked the rich, vivid color and dynamic forms of a Grace Hartigan piece, and was impressed by the photographs in the show, not a medium usually associated with abstract expressionism. Two things struck me forcibly: one was how the paintings, which I used to think of as “my” contemporary art (even though much of it was painted before I was born, and partly because of my disinterest in the pop and minimalist work that came just afterward), now looks, well, not dated, but historical. It looks strong and fresh as any good art, but it looks like something from an earlier period. I guess I am from an earlier period, as well. The other thing that startled me was how many visitors to the show experienced it through the viewfinders of their pocket cameras. Perhaps this is a recent trend reflecting the contemporary tendency to whip out one’s camera at the least provocation, perhaps it was just noticeable because the show permitted photography and most museum shows do not. Between the cameras and the people holding audio guide handsets (looking like huge ancient cell phones), a large percentage of attendees experienced a show of paintings mediated by technology. What is the comparison with concerts? Being on the lawn listening to amplified sound at Tanglewood?
I liked the quote from Joan Mitchell on a wall placard near her painting, a comment on the need for structure in her work: “I don’t just close my eyes and hope for the best.”
Check out the slide show about the exhibit at Slate.