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The Arts

A rich and diverse vocabulary

BMAC seeks to make abstract art less intimidating

BRATTLEBORO—What should you look for when taking in an abstract painting?

Find out at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC), which is presenting “Dynamic Invention: American Abstract Artists at 75,” a portfolio of 48 archival inkjet prints of astounding abstract works.

It and three other installations, “Red Grooms: What’s the Ruckus?,” a major new exhibit by the venerable Pop artist (and his first-ever in Vermont); “Between Dark and Night: New Pastels by Brattleboro-based artist Mallory Lake,” featuring lush, film noir-inspired work; and “Collective Memories of Place,” a site-specific outdoor installation by Terry Slade, are on view through Oct. 20.

“Dynamic Inventions” at BMAC is the first museum exhibition of the “American Abstract Artist (AAA) 75th Anniversary Print Portfolio” (2012).

Here, the diversity of visual language of form, color, and line in abstract art are celebrated in works by some of America’s leading nonobjective artists.

This portfolio is the organization’s fourth collection of prints — the other three appeared in 1937, 1987, and 1997 — and is introduced by Robert Storr, curator, critic, painter, and dean of Yale’s school of art, who puts AAA in its historical and cultural context as having emerged “when the war clouds were gathering worldwide, when enlightened culture was under direct assault everywhere...”

As counterpoint, he says, American Abstract Artist is a major forum for the exchange of ideas and exhibiting abstract art. This democratic artist-run organization was founded in 1936 in New York City to promote and foster understanding of abstract and non-objective art. AAA organizes exhibitions, produces member print portfolios and catalogs, and provides a forum on abstract art.

To date, American Abstract Artists has produced more than 120 exhibitions in museums and galleries worldwide.

“What binds past and present members of AAA together is a deep respect for the value of visual experience unencumbered by programs and pretensions,” Storr writes. “As this portfolio demonstrates, nothing is inherently alien to rigorous abstraction except depiction.”

‘A snapshot of contemporary abstract art’

According to BMAC Chief Curator Mara Williams, “Dynamic Invention” is a wonderful opportunity to see a snapshot of contemporary abstract art, complete with what she calls an overview of the rich and diverse vocabulary of abstract art today.

She adds the technical quality of the prints in the show, all of which were produced in 2012, is outstanding — and she says that as a self-described “old-fashioned print snob.”

“I was astonished at the clarity of nuance, and not prepared for the advances in the technologies of reproduction in only the last two or three years. I was quite simply blown away by the quality, the intricacies, the depth of color in what we are showing in this exhibit. I honestly can not tell the difference between the copy and the original in many of the pieces,” she says.

And the artists themselves were intimately involved in producing the prints to be used in the portfolio, she says, deciding on how much of an image to reproduce, how to arrange it on the page, and whether to photograph or reproduce the image directly from the original.

All works were then scanned at the highest allowable resolution, making for remarkable detail, delicacy, and depth of color.

Even though abstract art has a legacy now more than a century old, Williams contends that non-objective painting can strike many who aren’t aware what to look for in it as dashed off or not serious: “My 2-year-old could do that,” she says she’s overheard people say.

“That is not only untrue, but it reveals uneasiness with this sort of aesthetic experience,” she says. “Most people understand works of art through stories. Enormous research has been done in the last 18 to 20 years that proves people respond to painting as narrative rather than through formal concerns like form and structure, as was often previously thought.”

Williams confesses that she herself made that mistake for years when talking to people about art.

“I would always talk about form and a work’s relation to the history of art,” she says. “Yet it has been proven that if you speak like this to a group of people, and then bring them back about an hour later and have them extrapolate on such ideas themselves, they’ll have nothing to say. People have to learn about art through their own voices, and for the novice art viewer — and you must understand 85 percent of all people test at this level, and this includes even those who work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — learn through stories.”

For instance, when most people look at a painting such as the Mona Lisa, they might ask, “Who is this woman? What does her smile signify? What kind of life has she lived to make her appear as she does?” Williams purports that from this early entry into a work of art, viewers then can move on to more “sophisticated” ways of seeing like its place in art history and formal concerns.

“But abstract art has no ready story to tell, which for a lot of viewers makes it a daunting viewing experience,” she explains. “They’re afraid to respond, because people don’t like to look foolish, and they don’t like to be wrong. What they are incorrect about is that there is no right or wrong in viewing works of art. Yes, they may be more and less sophisticated, more or less informed, but no approach is more valid than the others.”

“Abstract art is a language such viewers do not understand,” she says. “I often ask people, ’What would you do if you were suddenly plopped in Red Square in Russia? Would you starve, or would you go and learn the language?’ Of course, they say they would learn the language. The same is true in art. This willingness to learn applies to me too. Art is constantly changing, and I need to acquire new languages all the time to appreciate what is being done now.”

Williams tries to get people acclimated to abstract art through the analogies of poetry and art.

“How do you make sense of a piece of classical music which has no narrative meaning, or poetry, which is fractured narrative meaning? Take Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, which commonly is agreed to be about nature. How does Beethoven paint a landscape with his music?

“People will suggest things like musical rhythm or syncopation. I explain that abstract paintings can make meaning in similar ways. Colors are like smells and taste: Some excite us and some cool us down. And abstract shapes also speak to us in direct ways. In an abstract painting, our physical senses meet our emotional selves in a way that, if you let it, becomes pleasurable.

“When you get comfortable this way with a viewing, you can find looking at an abstract painting is not daunting, but fun. It turns out to be a rewarding experience,” she says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #216 (Wednesday, August 14, 2013).

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