The Mid-Century American Art That Changed History

Art by: Larry Rivers, Art by: Larry Rivers, " The Athelete's Dream.

Dayton Art Institute Presents ‘Modern Masters’

By Jud Yalkut

In the years after World War II, the contemporary art world was ruled by Europe and most particularly by France, to which many American artists were attracted for work and study. Within just a few years and the return of these artists to their homeland, it was suddenly and dramatically reversed so that America and the artistic center of New York City became the fulcrum of the new creative spirit.

Art by: Larry Rivers, " The Athelete's Dream"

This impact of America’s new dominance was further enhanced by key teaching pioneers like Josef Albers and Hans Hoffman relocating to New York after escaping the chaos and persecution preceding the World War. Their classes and workshops nurtured several generations of American artists who respectively investigated either geometric abstraction (in the spirit of Albers) or what became Abstract Expressionism (with inspiration from the “push-pull” dynamics
of Hoffman).

Dayton is especially blessed by currently hosting one of the most comprehensive selections of works from this mid-century period in “Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum” running through Sunday, October 10 at the Dayton Art Institute. Forty-three key paintings and sculptures from the Smithsonian collection are arranged in three powerful themes: “Optics and Order,” “Significant Gestures” and “New Images of Man,” the latter category demonstrating the interaction of the figurative image
with abstraction.

DAI curator Will South has pointed out that “abstraction had many different approaches, fueled by interchanges between artists who hung out in bars together and who argued about the intersection between chance and spontaneity while critiquing each other’s work as they were concerned with sensation, engagement and ‘What is it that we see?’”

Albers, teaching at Black Mountain College and suffused with his Bauhaus background, had stressed discipline and “if you change the slightest thing, you change everything.”

Albers is represented here by one of his iconoclastic “Homage to the Square” paintings, subtitled “Insert” (1959) rendered in acrylic with its off-center concentric squares and yellow center, and his precursor to Op-Art “On Tideland” (1947-1955) with its vibrating asymmetric orange-rose on ocher. Ilya Bolotowsky, born in Russia, moved from his biomorphic abstractions for the WPA Federal Art Project to seek a more reductivist format, with the varied color rectangles of “Architectural Variation” (1949) evolving into his more characteristic color divisions of “Tondo Variations in Red” (1978). The lesser-known Russian-born Maurice Golubov explored softer-edged geometric expression with a mystical impulse for “one whole instant moment” in his 1948 “Untitled” oil. The purely “spiritual” rectangular format of “#13 (Untitled)” (1960) by John McLaughlin was inspired by Asian art and living in Japan and China.

Choice sculptural pieces in “Modern Masters” span diverse genres, starting with the assemblage wooden struc-
tures painted her trademark black by Louise Nevelson called “Sky Totem” (1956) and
the rough homespun quality of “Gate V (from the ‘Garden Gate’Series)” (1959-60), here eternally cast in bronze. Egyptian-born Ibram Lassaw developed welding and brazing techniques to create calligraphic structures in bronze like his “Banquet” (1961). Polish-born Theodore Roszak evolved from meticulous Bauhaus constructivist reliefs to post-War explosive visions like “Thistle in the Dream (To Louis Sullivan)” (1955-56) in an evocation of what he called “primordial strife.” Humanism motivated Seymour Lipton’s evolution from symbolic social realism to large monumental evocations merging abstract figuration with metabolic symbols of “the dark inside of things.”

Ad Reinhardt took the symbolic dancing optics of his 1940 “Untitled” into more abstruse realms with his almost all-black “no object, no subject” “Abstract Painting No. 4” (1961). Esteban Vincente felt close to Reinhardt though his “Spring” (1970) recalls the color field magic of Mark Rothko, while Helen Frankenthaler perfected the acrylic soak-stain magic of such works as “Desert Pass” (1976). Frankenthaler was married for a time to Robert Motherwell who perfected collage pieces which combined oil and paper in “Collage no. 2” (1945) alongside monumental oils on fiberboard like “Wall Painting III” (1952).

Other primal Abstract Expressionists include: Adolph Gottlieb with his juxtaposition of haloed discs and energy bursts like the blue, white and red orbs over the calligraphic black of “Three Discs” (1960); the “abstract impressionist” lyrical abstractions of WPA-veteran Philip Guston with his “Painter III” (1960); the paint-and-repaint improvisational strength of the brilliantly colored oil “Untitled” (c.1959) and the magnified black-and-white calligraphy of the acrylic “Untitled”(1961); and the giant abstract lyricism of “remembered landscapes” by Monet-influenced Joan Mitchell “My Landscape II” (1967) who lived in France for more than half of her life.

In addition, California-based artists were not neglected in this collection and include: Richard Diebenkorn with one of the earliest in his extensive series of abstract landscapes with “Ocean Park, No. 6” (1968); the abstract figurative portraits of Nathan Oliveira with his green-caped woman in “Nineteen Twenty-Nine” (1961); the immediate brushwork of Paul Wonner in “Girl in Swing” off-center against the expansive sweep of a landscape; and the diaphanous cosmological light of Sam Francis’ “Blue Balls” (1960).

Further, African-American life is collaged into edgy compositions in such urban visions like “Spring Way” (1964) by Romare Bearden; Jim Dine brings ordinary objects and pre-graffiti-like markings into “The Valiant Red Car” (1960) which served as a backdrop for his “Car Crash” happening in New York; Grace Hartigan abstracts motorcycle parts into the Pop-abstracted “Modern Cycle” (1967); and Larry Rivers creates a magnificent autobiographical montage of his classic portrayals of his mother-in-law Berdie and his lover and poet-curator Frank O’Hara in his jazz-inflected “The Athlete’s Dream” (1956) which celebrates his virtuosic drawing technique within white space and diluted colors.

The Dayton Art Institute is located at 456 Belmonte Park North. Admission to ‘Modern Masters’ is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $6 for youth, and free for museum members and children ages 6 and under. Free admission on August 19 and September 16 (Free Third Thursdays). The exhibition continues through Sunday, October 10. For more information on the exhibition and concurrent programs call (937) 223-5277 or visit online at

Reach DCP visual arts critic Jud Yalkut at

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