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AB EX NY: MoMA and Abstract Expressionism

Take the online course Modern and Contemporary Art: 1945-1989 to find out what happens next or experiment with Abstract Expressionist painting techniques in the online course, Materials and Techniques of Postwar painting Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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Video transcript

This exhibition assembles more than a hundred works of art made by Abstract Expressionist artists in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. What's amazing to me is they all come from the collection of this museum. For me, it was very important to do this exhibition -- for two reasons. One is the sheer pleasure and the sheer, I felt, importance of, fifty or sixty years later, looking again at Abstract Expressionism. It's become something so identified with New York and with MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art), and something that we take for granted -- almost as much as we take something like French Impressionism for granted. Like, "Oh yes, those beautiful landscapes by Monet." And I thought, over the last year or two, that this is painting and sculpture that we need to look at again, and -- now that it's the 21st century -- see what of it really carries forward its message into this next century. It's been a long time now since that work got a serious reconsideration. I think it's going to be exhilarating, frankly, to see the power of these objects in the galleries -- the ambition, the sheer majesty and grandeur of this art -- because that's very much what its creators wanted it to be, is something that is knocking my socks off, anyway, all over again. But the other reason that I wanted to do this exhibition is to point out to our visitors that what you normally see at The Museum of Modern Art, you're seeing the tip of an iceberg. The real Museum of Modern Art is not what you see on the walls and the galleries when you're walking through as a visitor. The real Museum of Modern Art is in our drawing center, in our print center, in our photography study center, where there are just hundreds and thousands of works of art that we've collected over the decades, but that obviously there isn't a space to show on a regular basis. So for me, this is actually quite a thrilling opportunity to have our visitors get the chance to walk through what is actually, in total, 25,000 square feet worth of gallery space -- all devoted to one subject -- that people can immerse themselves in, can really dig into. Instead of just seeing the normal two or three paintings by Mark Rothkoe, see ten paintings by Mark Rothkoe. Instead of just seeing the big names like Mark Rothkoe or Jackson Pollock, see works by artists such as Jack Tworkov, William Baziotes, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner -- people who were incredibly important at that time, and who had major, major impact on their peers. And yet, over time, their names have not been remembered as well. The Museum of Modern Art is often very closely identified with Abstract Expressionism. We were on hand for Abstract Expressionism's birth. In small part, at least, one can say, because MoMA did exist, and because MoMA was here to show that art from the first half of the century by European greats, such as Matisse and Picasso -- to young artists at work in New York. Although we are so closely identified with Abtract Expressionism today -- (And, indeed, our collection is the richest in the world.) -- in the beginning, this museum was slow to come to Abstract Expressionism. It was not obvious at the end of the 40s that this was a movement that had some kind of coherence, and was going to be as great, if not greater, than these earlier European avant gardes. We did buy a painting by a Pollock -- a painting by Pollock -- from his first show at the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery in 1943. And we made other historic purchases like that. In fact, our first Rothkoe painting, which was offered as a gift from a trustee, (Philip Johnson, the architect, in fact, in 1952) caused another trustee to resign in disgust. The early trustees and the early audience was not necessarily ready for Abstract Expressionism. And so I think the curators were conscious of that, and wanted to take it slow. In 1958, we organized an exhibition called 'The New American Painting.' It toured to eight countries in Europe. The influence of that exhibition was enormous on painters in France, Switzerland, England, Spain, Italy, etc. And when that exhibition was done with its tour, it came back and was here at MoMA in 1959 -- 'The New American Painting.' And that kind of sealed the movement as a great, important art historical phenomenon of the 20th century.