How modern artists, from Jackson Pollock to Andy Warhol, were rebels

Partial exhibition shot.

Camille Pissarro, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol are a few of the nearly 70 artists that make up the “Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels” exhibition currently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum. If the eclectic mix of artists is not enough of a draw, the fact that the sculptures and paintings that make up this show come from New York’s Albright Knox Art Gallery — an institution recognized worldwide for its premier collection of modern art — will be. In today’s world where people and companies strive for independence and means of differentiation, “Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels” demonstrates how modern artists were rebels, albeit in different ways.

Being a modern rebel is the theme that unites the various art movements seen throughout the show: Cubism, Impressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting and Pop. Visitors appreciate the opportunity to consider artwork spanning some five decades governed by one theme. Of these movements, some people find Cubism’s fractured images and Abstract Expressionism’s turn from traditional subjects and techniques towards “gestural marks and fields of color,” as art historian David Joselit puts it in his book, American Art Since 1945, formidable. But considering Cubism and Abstract Expressionism alongside a host of other movements governed by the same theme is another way to look at and understand two fundamental developments in the history of art. Instead of being burdensome, this exhibition is repeatedly a pleasure.

The show opens with works from the School of Paris, a group of non-French artists working in Paris from the turn of the 20th century until about 1940. This is a good starting point since Paris was the “international magnet” for contemporary artists, the museum’s wall panel explains. Given the mélange of artists flocking to Paris during that time, the School of Paris included a host of art methods and approaches, such as Fauvism’s bold and jarring colors. That said, pieces by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Joan Miró fill the museum’s walls, as do works by French artists, Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Being a modern rebel unites these seemingly disparate images; it is up to the visitor to stop, look and consider how this is so. The mood is somber, and the entrance of the gallery is quiet, as people gawk at the quality of the work before continuing on.

Being a Modern Rebel

The arrangement of the show is loosely chronological, and includes artwork from the 1880s through the 1960s, with a few pieces from the 21st century at the end. Visitors weave from front to back in one large gallery space; this flow echoes the seamless transition of art movements. The handful of wall panels with text, strategically placed throughout the exhibition to introduce art movements, are merely a guide. The onus is on the viewer to make observations and draw conclusions; some are more subtle than others. This being so, visitors may observe that Picasso and George Braque fragment their subjects; Yves Tanguy reveals the potential of machines in his “Indefinite Divisibility;” Robert Delaunay’s “Sun, Tower, Airplane” suggests a utopian vision that includes technology, large buildings and city life abstracted in a scene basted in bright colors; and Mark Rothko’s floating fields of color and his drive to express “the basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom,” as the artist once said.

Jackson Pollock, “Convergence.”

A highlight of the show, and a noted transition, is the portion of the exhibition devoted to Abstract Expressionism. It marks the second half of the show and underscores a shift in art capitals: from Paris to New York. Visitors cannot not miss Jackson Pollock’s “Convergence.” Its enormous size stops visitors in their tracks, especially in comparison to the School of Paris artworks; Pollock’s hypnotic use of lines and drips of paint all over the canvas are visually arresting.

That’s not all. The curatorial decision to include Lee Krasner’s “Milkweed” diagonally across from Pollock’s jaw-dropping work is an effective juxtaposition. The inclusion of Krasner, who married Pollock in 1945 and was also an abstract expressionist, prompts visitors to contemplate being a modern rebel through a different lens: that of gender. Krasner is one of the few female artists included in the show. This is probably because the art world was dominated by men during that time. To this point, in American Art Since 1945, Joselit explains art historian Anne Wagner’s argument, author of Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe: “All of those qualities which were valued in Pollock’s art — its access to emotion and its flirtation with chaos — would be condemned as excessively feminine or even hysterical when met with in the art of a woman.” Even so, the inclusion of “Milkweed” suggests that Krasner was also a rebel: a woman pioneering in a male-dominated art world.

The exhibition ends with a section devoted to “Pop and Beyond,” where Post-World War II artists rejected the emotional tenors of Abstract Expressionism. Pop artists used popular culture as subjects, mirroring the mass production and consumption taking place in America. This marks a stark contrast from the work of Abstract Expressionists, who “sought to externalize . . . what they saw as an internal psychological reality,” Joselit states. Instead of turning to Jungian psychology or primitive myths for inspiration, Pop artists like Warhol turned to Campbell soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and celebrities, for example; Lichtenstein used cartoons as source imagery. Examples from each artist are displayed.

The show is successful for including a vast number of key modern artists under one theme. At the same time, Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” a term he coined in which mass-produced objects were deemed pieces of art by the choice of the artist, would have been apt inclusions. As would paintings by Édouard Manet, whom many consider to be the “father of modernism.” Above all, in a world overcome with rebellion both in and outside of the arts, “Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels” is a relevant show. The latitude it grants visitors to consider a stated theme is refreshing. Visitors not only think about the impact of modern artists as rebels, but also consider how present-day artists are rebels themselves.

“Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels” is on show at the Milwaukee Art Museum until September 20, 2015.

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad