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AbEx: Masterpieces From The Museum of Modern Art

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New York can be such a tantalizing object: the meta-metropolis' treasures are so well documented and projected on the world stage that it can be frustrating to consider the actual physical distance that lies between us and them. By "us," of course, I mean everyone who does not live in Manhattan, and by "them" I mean the vast collection of fine arts which furnish the museums and galleries of that city. The Art Gallery of Ontario has helped to bridge this interminable gap with its newest exhibition, Abstract Expressionist New York, which features a diverse array of the titular movement's representative artists here in Toronto. It is a rare opportunity for those of us who are more tightly bound to our native soil to go for a walk through presentations that more regularly haunt The Museum of Modern Art.

The Abstract Expressionists remain polarizing even now, six decades after their movement's first exposure to a broader audience. The majority of the work encompassed under their rubric was produced sometime between the late 1940's and the end of the 1950's. Looking at them more than half a century later, some pieces retain their latent potential to inspire bewilderment, or even an obdurate, gut-wrenching distaste but by now we've also become acclimated to some of their more characteristic images. The visual syntax that was being invented by these artists has become integrated into our cultural lexicon, and by consequence a great many people now look upon their creative representations as pleasurable in and of themselves. Such a thing might have been inconceivable to all but a handful when these paintings first saw the light of day.

In 1948 Barnett Newman said: "The impulse of modern art was to destroy beauty." He was speaking about the art featured in this exhibit. He wasn't exaggerating. The relationship between beauty and art has been a complex one, stretching back at least to the ancient Greeks, and for a long portion of human history they have been synonymous: the presence of the former inherent in the accomplishments of the latter. Judgment of creative expression relied on how "beautiful" that expression could be appraised to be. Beauty inspired desire. Desire was an intellectual drive. It was a noble affiliation. But by the early 20th century this connection had begun to break down, was not nearly so explicit, and the ability to inspire longing had begun to be associated to the province of the base, the common. A division appeared between what might be considered aesthetic, and what could be considered beautiful.

This effect of this separation is evident in the choices on display at the AGO. The attraction and sense of appreciation that is produced by the vastly dissimilar artworks populating the exhibit's journey is primarily intellectual, not visceral, something that the 20th century critic Clive Bell would have pointed out as a hallmark of true art -- conclusively delimited from the easy, reflexive enjoyment of something that merely looks good. There is more at play here than simply measuring reactions of nostalgia and recognition.

Over 25 artists are represented in the show. Taken together their work is an unequivocally heterogeneous collection, but each in their own way was out to kill the idea of beauty, while at the same time give birth to a new aesthetic sensibility, one that, in retrospect, does sometimes smack of an ostentatious sense of superiority, but is still furiously interesting. From Adolph Gottlieb's almost hieroglyphic pictographs to Lee Krasner's deliciously feminine, agitated brushstrokes, from Clyfford Still's broad, black boards stripped with jagged bands of colour, to Mark Rothko's serene, enigmatic rectangles of tone, they all set out to disengage from the messy, fraught, common delinquencies of desire. Instead, undertaking an exploration of a realm that consisted of expression and pure apprehension, one ruled by form and the relationships between mediums rather than the subject and its representation, their efforts were an attempt to rise above tradition and give something different to the visual world. Their legacy has transformed what we consider to be art, and complicated what we are even capable of labeling as "pretty." AbEx represents an essential chapter in the greater volume of cultural literacy and, as such, demands consideration.