Modernism from the National Gallery of Art at the de Young

Originally published in the Marina Times San Francisco August 2014 edition

I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality. —Barnett Newman

San Franciscans won’t have to wait for the MOMA to reopen to get a taste of modern art. Through October 12, the de Young will feature over 40 post World War II works from the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff collection in a special exhibit which includes works by Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman, Philip Guston, Frank Stella and others.

These innovative works of art explore the interaction of shape and color, paring down form to its bare essentials. Traditional narrative and meaning, in this genre, is often abandoned. Optical illusions, empty space, shadows and light are employed as the work instead of merely the environment surrounding the work. The identity of the art object becomes mysterious by virtue of its simplicity.

Frank Stella’s Flin Flon IV (1969) exemplifies the austerity of this era in abstract painting. Intersecting semicircular arcs combine with soft color creating a vibrating interaction of foreground and background that gives the viewer a sense of movement that borders on optical illusion. Ellsworth Kelley’s Orange Green from 1966 simplifies form even further by matching the tranquility of two intersecting colors like a sharper edged version of Mark Rothko’s earlier meditative canvases. Moody works by Jasper Johns and Philip Guston provide a certain amount of edgy contrast to the cool composure of Stella’s and Kelley’s minimalism.

The most prominent work in the exhibit, delegated to its own room and space, is Barnett Newman’s The Stations of the Cross (1958-66). A series consisting of fourteen paintings, Newman’s Stations indicates the movement of vertical forms on large canvases, black lines that change in shape and texture suggesting a kind of procession or movement of undulating sound.

A work of art is like a word. Considered on its own, it has little context. Taken with other words, it forms a sentence. Meaning is revealed. It’s the same with art. Modernism often removes the familiar context of recognizable imagery. The resulting landscape of form and color gives us, the viewer, room to dream.

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