Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell, Class of 1960
The years between 1952 and 1990 were one of the most fertile periods in the history of abstract painting, an era rivaled only by the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century, when abstraction was invented and, over time, finessed in Europe, Russia, and the United States. The pictures featured in Rothko to Richter provide an idiosyncratic window into a moment of remarkable creative ferment, when abstraction was being hotly contested. At the forefront of these conversations were the artists featured in Rothko to Richter.
Associated with movements as diverse as Abstract Expressionism, Art Informel, Color Field, Minimalism, Op art, and Postmodernism, each artist sought to redefine abstract painting for a new social and cultural milieu. Each asked him- or herself: what does it mean to make an abstract painting in 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, or 1990? What does any particular historical moment demand of abstraction? Even though they came to disparate conclusions, the artists in Rothko to Richter tended to approach this question via the same means: mark-making. For them, the debate around abstract painting occurred largely at the level of process and technique.
Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell showcases the work of twenty-three American, Canadian, and European artists, including Karel Appel, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler, Jack Goldstein, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Mark Rothko, and Frank Stella. The twenty-seven paintings on view range across a spectrum of styles, from the spirited and gestural to the placid and restrained to the austere and mechanical. The vast majority are demonstrably abstract. Five—two by de Kooning, two by Goldstein, and one by Rauschenberg—only flirt with abstraction. While de Kooning and Goldstein abstract recognizable motifs through alteration, cropping, or brushwork, Rauschenberg juxtaposes abstract passages with representational elements. For most of the painters in this exhibition, abstraction and representation were distinct, mutually exclusive pursuits. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, even those artists who had once painted figures or landscapes considered representation largely obsolete. In their view, abstraction alone fulfilled the prerogatives of advanced painting after World War II. Not so for de Kooning, Goldstein, and Rauschenberg, who married aspects of mimetic and nonmimetic painting in the same works of art, leveling the hierarchy that had long governed their relationship. In addition, de Kooning and Rauschenberg, as well as Richter, toggled between abstraction and representation, creating abstract, semiabstract, and representational works of art simultaneously.
The paintings in Rothko to Richter narrate a history of postwar art whose greatest points of tension and most important moments of breakthrough revolve around technique. Together, the works demonstrate a fundamental fact: when painting’s prerogatives change, so, too, do its procedures. Focusing on select works from the Haskell Collection, Rothko to Richter explores the nature of marks and mark-making in abstract painting after World War II. In the case of the artists in this exhibition, mark-making was an activity of incredible consequence. The success or failure of any one painting might rest on something as elementary as the choice between oil paint and acrylic paint or a brush and a palette knife. It might depend on the difference between staining and smearing, between choppy strokes and fluid swipes, or between painting dry-on-dry and wet-on-wet.
With this in mind, Rothko to Richter examines how and what marks signify within a single artist’s work as well as in postwar painting as a whole. How do shifts in the way marks are made signal broader shifts in artistic practice? What are the different, often competing logics of mark-making at any given moment? How do marks reflect or, alternately, disavow the impact of mass media, technology, and photomechanical reproduction in the mid- to late twentieth century? Such an investigation is premised on a particular understanding of the word “mark.” First and foremost, “mark” is a product as well as a process—more specifically, it is an end that cannot be separated from its means. Marks are also structural— not to mention vocal—components of any given painting. Not only do they reveal a great deal about a painting’s meaning, they also shape that meaning—give it form and substance—for the viewer. For the purposes of this exhibition, the mechanics of mark-making are socially, physically, symbolically, and historically important.
Marks are the constituent feature— the backbone—of painting. Any one painting is comprised of hundreds, if not thousands, of marks. In most cases, these marks are made in paint, on a support, by the hands of an artist. Marks issue directly from artists, in other words. Even when those hands wield an implement—a brush or palette knife, for example—a physical connection still obtains between artist and mark. Many of the artists in Rothko to Richter exploit this very character of the mark. In their paintings, a direct, transparent relationship exists between mark and method, a one-to-one correspondence between every stroke of paint and every movement of the artist’s hand. However, not every artist in Rothko to Richter subscribes to this approach. Indeed, several developed techniques designed to depersonalize the act of mark-making—to literally divorce the mark from the artist’s hand. Some even went so far as to erase the traces their tools left behind, effacing marks as soon as they were created. Instead of flaunting the process by which their paintings were produced, these artists dissimulated.
Rothko to Richter is bookended artistically, conceptually, and historically by two sets of paintings: Rothko’s Untitled (1968) and Richter’s Abstract Painting (613-3) (1986) as well as Hofmann’s Composition #3 (1952) and Goldstein’s Untitled (1985). Together these four paintings signal the priorities of abstract art as they changed over the course of the mid to late twentieth century. Although the materiality and gestural dynamism of the Hofmann differs considerably from the quietude and restraint of the Rothko, both artists prized immediacy, virtuosity, and expression, priorities in keeping with the Abstract Expressionist movement to which they belonged. Gestures, especially autographic gestures that indexed the artist’s distinct will, personality, and psychological state, play a key role in their paintings. For artists like Hofmann and Rothko, gestures were overtures, forms of communication that served to address viewers directly and invite them to participate in a subjective exchange. Gesturing involved gesticulating in the sense we understand that word today. In Hofmann’s Composition #3 and Rothko’s Untitled, the artist’s hand, wrist, and arm are marshaled so as to externalize otherwise private impulses, instincts, and passions. The affective power of such gestures was in direct proportion to their fluidity, sensitivity, and virtuosity, traits enthusiastically embraced by Abstract Expressionists.
For their part, Richter and Goldstein show disdain for expression conventionally understood. They also examine critically and even ironically what it means to produce an abstraction and make a mark in an era dominated by media, photographs, and technology. To this end, they pioneered new, more objective, systematic ways of creating paintings, adopting unconventional tools like squeegees (in the case of Richter) and car sanders, gravity-fed bottles used for pinstriping, and commercial-grade spray guns (in the case of Goldstein) that serve to minimize the role of the artist’s hand. Goldstein was particularly adamant about anonymizing his canvases. As he said in 1985, with a spray gun, one “isn’t making marks, one isn’t leaving traces, it’s air.” It was not only marks or traces Goldstein sought to dispense with, however, but his very self. “I tried to disappear . . . by hiring others to manufacture my paintings,” he stated toward the end of his life.
In Rothko to Richter, paintings that do not often share space in a museum confront one another on nearby walls. Given their stylistic, thematic, and procedural disparities, painters like Rothko, Stella, and Goldstein make for a very unlikely triumvirate, as do Frankenthaler, Anuszkiewicz, and Richter, but these sorts of unconventional juxtapositions offer fresh perspectives on art, revealing previously concealed affinities or, alternately, exacerbating strong differences of opinion about the proper ambitions for painting.
Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell has been made possible by generous support from the members of the Advisory Council of the Princeton University Art Museum: John Diekman, Class of 1965, and Susan Diekman; Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, and Frances Beatty Adler; Diane W. Burke; Sarah Lee Elson, Class of 1984; Doris F. Fisher; Christopher Forbes, Class of 1972, and Astrid Forbes; Alice C. Frelinghuysen, Class of 1976, and George Frelinghuysen, Class of 1973; Stacey Roth Goergen, Class of 1990, and Robert Goergen; Heather Sturt Haaga and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970; Nancy Lee; Thomas W. Lentz; Philip Maritz, Class of 1983, and Jennifer Maritz; Nancy A. Nasher, Class of 1976, and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976; Christy Eitner Neidig and William Neidig, Class of 1970; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; Mark W. Stevens, Class of 1973, and Annalyn Swan, Class of 1973; and Trevor D. Traina, Class of 1990, and Alexis S. Traina. Additional support has been provided by the Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Contemporary Art Fund; the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Judith and Anthony B. Evnin, Class of 1962, Exhibitions Fund; and an anonymous donor, with further support from the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum.