Ordinarily, exhibitions of art from a museum’s permanent collection are about as newsworthy as re-arranging the furniture. Staff and a few art historians and critics might take notice, but that’s about it.Contemporary Art from the Farnsworth at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine (through May 22, 2011) strikes me as an exception. The show is an installation of post-World War II art designed to make a point.
“While abstract expressionism catapulted American art to the forefront of the world avant-garde,” states the exhibition press release, “realism maintained a strong hold on American artists and enjoyed a revival in the 1960s which has persisted to this day, coexisting with equally persistent strains of abstraction. The exhibition will explore this phenomenon…”
Realism after abstraction is an appropriate theme for the Farnsworth both because Maine was one of the places where representational artists continued to thrive while realism was out of favor in New York and because the museum, which opened in 1948, is a post-World War II phenomenon itself. Because the Farnsworth collection is focused on “Maine in America,” it tends to have a somewhat conservative, regional character, but Contemporary Art from the Farnsworth places a lot of “Maine art” in a larger national context.
The exhibition features 32 paintings and two sculptures, the majority by artists with Maine connections, but the larger national context is provided primarily by works given to the museum by Alex Katz, a summer resident of Lincolnville and one of the longtime art stars of New York. Gifts from the Alex Katz Foundation and Alex and Ada Katz include works by Joanne Baldinger, Jennifer Bartlett, Ellen Berkenblit, Robert Berlind, Richard Bosman, Francesco Clemente, Janet Fish, Juan Gomez, Michael Joo, Sylvia Mangold, Stephen Pace, Ellen Phelan, David Salle, and Katz himself, or about half the show.
The lesson of abstraction was that a work of art should be a thing-in-itself before it is simply a likeness of something else, an insistence on the integrity of an object as something other than illusion. The best post-Abstraction realists, like Katz, his late Lincolnville neighbor Neil Welliver, and Pop Art prince Andy Warhol (all represented in the exhibition) absorbed the lessons of abstraction and responded with representational paintings that were flat and ironic rather than illusary and sincere. (The traditional romantic realism of narrative art is alive and well at the Farnsworth, where it sometimes seems it’s all Wyeth all the time.)
Abstract works in the show include a large target painting by the late Kenneth Noland, a Maine summer resident, a great grid painting by the late Michael Loew, a Monhegan summer resident, and metal sculptures by two of the best sculptors to emerge in Maine since Louise Nevelson – John Bisbee and Celeste Roberge.
[Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum St., Rockland ME, 207-596-6457]