July 1, 2021

At the Met: Abstraction, Modest and Monumental

Piet Mondrian, Composition, 1921

One of the great joys of wandering the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is seeing art that spans centuries. There is Egyptian sculpture from 2,000 B.C., through and up to contemporary art of the 20th and 21st centuries; this range of style and content and culture and meaning opens my mind. Oh, I admit there are areas of art that I don't think I'll ever like––Italian 16th century mannerism, for instance––but I admire most everything; that certainly includes modern and contemporary abstract painting. I loved seeing this small––19.5 inch square––painting by Mondrian in the Modern and Contemporary galleries. It has great presence in its simple structure of rectangles divided by heavy black lines. What's especially interesting about this painting, which is early in Mondrian's exploration of Neo-Plasticism, is that the color is mixed, as different from that in his later work, when he used only primary colors. 

Leon Polk Smith, Accent Black, 1949

Leon Polk Smith's geometry is more lively than that in the Mondrian. The diagonal placement of rectangles and squares emphasize movement; the composition is then stabilized by the black at the bottom, holding the earth-red shapes in place. 

Carmen Herrera, Iberic, 1949

With Carmen Herrera's Iberic, I see yet another approach to geometry, using curves and points and shapes of different sizes. The composition is anchored by the slightly squashed divided circle at the center, held up by a thick line of horizontal black that angles into a vertical and meets orange. The color is both somber––black, and dark red, with deep orange––but also hot, in the warmth of red and orange. For me, Iberic is quite playful in its rhythmic shapes. 

Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope, 1971

After seeing the three paintings above, I walked into galleries that contained paintings which had been part of the exhibition "Epic Abstraction". The three following paintings are certainly epic in their size, and they are all "painterly". To be clear,  I am not equating size with quality; it is simply a different characteristic. Joan Snyder's 6 x 12 foot canvas is covered with joyous paint; I see it in that spirit because of its color, like an explosive spring garden, and in the exuberant paint handling. There is open space, as in a Chinese landscape, and my eye follows paths across the canvas.

Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope, detail

The paths are created by paint that is slathered, wiped. dripped; it is thick and thin; put on with brushes? hands? palette knife? The variety of marks, their physicality, adds energy to the painting; the brushwork lends such immediacy that it feels as though it's still in the process of being made.

Joan Mitchell, La Vie en Rose, 1979

Joan Mitchell creates an atmospheric landscape-like space across the four panels of this large painting. The upper area of the panels are gently violet-tinged; they contrast with the aggressive, agitated marks below. Because the painting is divided into four parts, with no continuity between them, it reads as a narrative, with four events unfolding over time; each panel has a slightly different emotional register, but all are passionate. 

Joan Mitchell, La Vie en Rose, detail

In this detail we can see much more complexity than when looking at a small image of the entire painting. Blacks and blues are layered over ochers and pinks, The brush jabs and sweeps, and the paint drips; there are thickets of strokes, evoking trees and brush. La Vie en Rose is an immersive experience, as though being within Mitchell's sense of space.

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1956

Ah, de Kooning! Even though I've seen many of his paintings over the years––including this one, and the great retrospective at MoMA in 2011-12––I stood transfixed in front of Easter Monday during my recent visit to the Met. I felt that I was exploring an actual physical space, complex and shallowly layered. Although the painting appears frenzied––on the Met's website they cite critic Thomas Hess, who likened this group of paintings to "abstract urban landscapes," and "Easter Monday does seem to reference the whirling pace and gritty detritus of the modern city"––its structure is solid and balanced. 

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, detail

As with the two paintings above, it's impossible to get a true sense of the physicality of paint in a photograph, but if you enlarge the images by clicking on them, you'll get a better idea. In this detail we can see an transfer from a newspaper pressed onto the canvas. As explained on the MoMA website: "De Kooning often used newspaper in his painting process. He pressed it against the surface of his canvases to keep the paint wet." This adds an unexpected element to the painting, which is at odds, in a fascinating way, with its abstraction. 

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, detail

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, detail

The brushstrokes are edgy, yet luscious. When I think of de Kooning's process, it brings to mind a quote of his in an interview with the critic Harold Rosenberg, about the uncertainty of making art, and I believe this to be true no matter the style or medium of the artwork: 
De Kooning: If you yourself made a sphere, you could never know if it was one. That fascinates me. Nobody ever will know it. It cannot be proven, so long as you avoid instruments. If I made a sphere and asked you, 'Is it a sphere' you would answer, 'How should I know?' I could insist that it looks like a perfect sphere. But if you looked at it, after awhile you would say, 'I think it's a bit flat over here.' That's what fascinates me––to make something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either. I will never know, and no one else will ever know.
Rosenberg: You believe that's the way art is?
De Kooning: That's the way art is.



  1. Richard Emery NickolsonJuly 1, 2021 at 5:02 PM

    Altoon, I loved wht you said about the Joan Snyder painting: "...the brushwork lends such immediacy that it feels as though it's still in the process of being made." Whenever I am at the Met, or the Art Institute of Chicago, or the National Gallery, I take so long going through the museum because I am looking at everything I see in this way, as if it is in the process of being made. Thanks for this essay!

    1. Thanks so much for the kind comment, Richard. Your way of looking at everything as in process is so interesting; I only thought this with the Snyder painting.

  2. Altoon, thank you so much for these posts. Since I cannot travel to NYC at this time, your photos and comments are like cool water to someone who is dying of thirst. Please keep them coming!

    1. I'm pleased you like my posts. I have one more from the Met, but don't know when I'll be getting to a museum again; not soon.

  3. I don't ever get to NYC, but fairly-often to Buffalo, and the Albright-Knox. Altoon, I will be looking at the great work there, and narrating them in your voice. Can't wait. Thank you.

    1. That's such a lovely response, JBS; thank you.

  4. I believe I saw that Mondrian in the hands of a technician at the Met in the 80s. It was in for conservation at the time. What a thrill.