IN THE palatial rooms of the Metropolitan Museum. New York is celebrating the works of art that have burst from its veins in the past 30 years. Displacing the European collection from its usual galleries an overpowering group of works by New York painters and sculptors of 1940-1970 calls for a contemporary audience to note the monumental discoveries in art.
The show fellows recent American work beginning with the Abstract Expressionists, and progressing through various experiments by color abstractionists up to Minimal Artists, Pop with its familiar fandango of images, and a few other works that stand outside the mainstream of the New York School are also there. The museum gives each artist a lot of space, usually at least half a room, so the viewer can see some progression of the individual's style.
The sculptures included in the exhibition are overshadowed by hundreds of huge, bright paintings. Distracted by a vista of green paint across the room, you find yourself walking past even the best pieces of David Smith.
The abstract imagery of geometric shapes and drips of paint in most of the works at the museum frees the art from connotations of material aspects of culture. The monumental size of the paintings gives them inescapable presence. Once in the room, the viewer cannot change the channel-he must look. The power of an undiluted red surface with stripes of white on each end by Barnett Newman stretches beyond the viewer's field of vision if he stands close. To see the whole he must stand back. By their sheer size the paintings scream for recognition, protesting the decreasing space in an overpopulated world. At first the enormity of the entire 34-room exhibition dwarfs the viewer. Yet the dynamism of art makes him empathize with the heroic stature or the visions before him.
The openness of these canvases is clearly contrasted by a room of odd little boxes by Joseph Cornell. He places Victorian mantelpiece objects., medicine bottles, and birds behind glass or a wire, closing them into a three dimensional space, like a tomb. These boxes seem to be the only attempt to frame three dimensional space in the context of the flat vision of the new American painting, but even this sort of ? D picture is lifeless compared to the original space of the abstract works.
ARTISTS could not achieve the dazzling effects of color with any smaller canvases. Size intensifies color. You remember color in all its revelations-color dripping, blooming, floating, color that hurts your eyes, color from spring.
The action painters began revolutionary work in the late '40's, reveling in the thick rich substance of paint itself. Pouring brown and grey paint. Pollock splashes a mood of autumn over the surface of the canvas. The paint holds the emotional energy of his action. Despite the element of chance inherent in Pollock's method of dripping paint, his gestures compose a completely personal style.
Concentrating on sweeping brush strokes, Willem de Kooning also surrenders his style to the specific manner of applying paint to canvas. Pollock, de Kooning and Hans Hoffman evoke feeling purely through the motion of paint, creating some of the most beautiful works in the exhibition. The immediate texture of paint brings action to the surface of the canvas, while space is suggested by particularly dense areas.
A GROUP of painters who succeeded Pollock renounced the dramatic mannerisms of the action painters, flattering the canvas further. No longer do you see the artist's hand. Lacking the tensions imposed by a portrayal of the artist's emotions on the canvas, these colorists remove the reference of the moment the painting was done. The work emerges with a new sense of timelessness.
Morris Louis, one of the most romantic of the color abstractionists, pours paint on a raw canvas, letting a veil of color soak into the material. Fluid color is freed to run and spread it chooses yet you sense a mind breathing the components into perfect combination.
The character of color achieves a more mystical purity in the atmospheric spray paintings of Jules Olitsky. Unfettered by any limits except the edge of the canvas, vaporous colors gradually shift tone across the surface.
By structuring color into definite geometric shapes, Minimal Artists give color the permanent stability it lacks in the impressionistic canvases of Olitsky. The smooth unmodulated hue of their minimal works pulls the canvas to an unprecedented flatness. The extensive steady tones glare outwards without suggesting any space for the eye to travel. Though it is difficult to conceive of a flatter picture, it is almost impossible not to see a special relationship between any two colors placed on the same surface. In their simplicity, the chevrons of Noland, thrust across the canvas, are impossible to forget. As the painted surfaces become flat, artists like Frank Stella give shape a new importance. His pin-striped canvases become parallelograms or odd geometric shapes.
Though many of the minimal works on display at the Metropolitan could be reproduced exactly by anyone with correct instructions from the artist, the particular choice of proportion, composition, and color can make a work of art and not merely a decorative design. Beside reflecting the phenomenon of mass production, the possibility of infinitely reproducing a piece of art declares its indestructibility. Existing as a concept to be executed at any given moment, art defies the limits of its physical state and grabs for immortality.
BY THE TIME the viewer wends his way through rooms of colorists, the confrontation with Pop Art jolts his senses. Though from the same environment as the abstract artists, pop artists attack different questions concerning the nature of art. Like masters of still life, they select subjects from the material world around them. By boldly painting things from Commercial America, they attempt to smash the aesthetic values of European traditional art. In spite of flashes of popular success, the movement has failed to undermine standards, and to move beyond its initial inventions.
W? during and familiarity appeals instantly but the particular interest of Pop lies in social criticism. The works at the Metropolitan provide a dose including Old??nberg's giant pool balls. Lichtensten's cartoons, Warhol's Marilyn Monroe, Pop lets the viewer share the satisfied superiority of mocking America and its many brands of soup.
There are so few images of people beyond the vulgar shapes of Pop that every figure you come across prints its plaintive face on your mind. Hollowness emanating like artificial sunlight from the doll-like people-the works of Hopper stand out from among the abstract pieces with haunting truthfulness. The only lyrical references to humanity emerge from the brush strokes of De Kooning and Kline-figures of paint both suggested and dissolved by a network of strokes. But the viewer of the vast rooms of abstraction feels the constant stares of the paintings reaching beyond their frames, asking the thought of the mind to comprehend their nature. Standing before the particularly bright ones, you begin to feel as though you are the subject matter and whatever occurs in your mind must complete the action of the painting.
Though some have criticized the show for not being totally representative of current American art in its selection of works, never before has such an exciting large group of contemporaries been assembled. It is a feast of hues and shapes that draws you into the process of discovering the possibilities left to painting and sculpture. Before the entrance of this show at the bottom of the long stone staircase in the museum, your eye is pulled through space above to a white mobile. The presence of this Calder bird prepares the senses for their audience with the reigning court of contemporary art.