“So we actually began . . . as if painting were not only dead but had never existed.”
—Barnett Newman, 1967
“Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera” is an ongoing exhibition to open to the public this upcoming Monday, Dec. 17th, in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of The Met. “Epic” in this title points both to the physical scale of the paintings and to the expansive ideas represented in these artworks—subjects ranging from time, to history, to the existential self. The collection expands beyond the familiar artworks of the New York school of the mid-twentieth century (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, etc.) to include works by artists that have reinterpreted and reinvented the idea of abstraction.
While Pollock was celebrated and canonized for his drip paintings for a significant portion of his short life, Herrera, an immigrant woman from Cuba, only began receiving recognition very recently—despite having prefigured later artistic trends such as Op art and minimalism. She had been practicing and refining the idea of abstraction since the fifties in New York, alongside her more publicized peers such as Leon Polk Smith and Barnett Newman. The collection in this exhibit, referenced by the second half of the title, “Pollock to Herrera,” aims to emphasize the inclusion of artists previously marginalized, and place them in conversation with the more well known white male artists of abstract expressionism.
Herrera—born in Havana, Cuba in 1915—had faced significant discrimination in the New York art world until her long-overdue recognition in the early 2000s when she was included at the Frederico Sève Gallery with other female geometric painters. Since then, her artistic vision has been acknowledged, and the artist is now recognized for her geometric abstraction paired with her reductive color palette and impeccable application. At age 103, she continues to work in her Manhattan studio today. Her 2012 piece, Equilibrio, brings formal oppositions into balance: three isosceles triangles are balanced on top of each other, and a stark contrast is represented between positive and negative spaces.
In the same room as Herrera’s Equilibrio breathes Louise Nevelson’s massive sculpture Mrs. N’s Palace, which dominates the entire space with its imposing size and monochromatic black. Nevelson, another immigrant woman from Ukraine, was especially fascinated with Cubism. In the 1930s, Nevelson traveled to Munich, Germany, to study Cubism. Cubist techniques seep profoundly into her sculptures including this one, where the assemblage of disparate found objects seems to represent multiple planes of perspective and are forced to create a uniform whole. Like her abstract expressionist contemporaries Rothko and Newman, she believed in evoking a sense of spiritual transcendence; her sculptures often resemble chapels or meditative spaces, and such ethereal emotions are heightened by her characteristic use of monochromatic black or white.
“Epic Abstraction” is a living exhibit; pieces will continue to be added and replaced to match our changing times.