American Abstraction

Sol LeWitt , Serial Project #1 C5, 1966–1969 enamel, steel 19.7 x 81 x 81 cm Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery Gift of Dr. and Mrs. William F. Campbell, G-78-91 © The LeWitt Estate / SODRAC (2015)


Western art history is strongly marked by the pursuit of pictorial illusion and resemblance. In the 20th century, however, an increasing number of European and North American artists began rejecting this mimetic tradition and instead started producing sculptures and paintings that made little or no obvious attempt to duplicate visual reality. By the 1960s and the 1970s modern abstraction rose to prominence worldwide, especially among artists, collectors, and institutions in the United States. American Abstraction draws from the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s permanent collection and brings together a selection of abstract paintings and sculptures created by American artists over these two decades.

Culturally enriched by successive waves of European immigration, the United States quickly emerged as a leading source of modern art in the decades following the Second World War. New York City in particular became an international hub of modernist abstraction. The multitude of approaches adopted by American abstract artists fell under an equally diverse set of designations, such as Minimalism, Op Art, Colour Field painting, Hard-edge painting, Conceptualism, and Process painting. Many artists roundly rejected the dimensional limitations imposed by the traditional picture easel. Floors and studio walls, onto which canvas would be rolled or affixed, became the new sites of large-scale creative engagement. Drips, stains, scuffs, and imprints increasingly replaced the brushstroke. Artistic interest shifted away from what critic Barbara Rose called the “extravisual” elements of symbolism, narrative, and individual expression, toward more impersonal and pictorial matters related to medium, space, and colour. New and unorthodox materials, from acrylic paint and plexi-glass to fluorescent lighting, also signaled a shift in the kind of work being made by American artists in the postwar period. For other artists, at issue was not so much scale or medium as much as the adoption of non-traditional, often seemingly arbitrary, working methods that redefined the parameters of creative production.

The WAG’s collection of American abstract art from the late-modern period is of particular historical significance to the Gallery. The current building, designed by Gustavo da Roza and constructed between 1969 and 1971, itself bears witness to many of the same aesthetic features found in the art of the postwar decades—expansive surfaces, material experimentation, and an elevation of formal concerns over representational and narrative content. Architectually, the WAG was designed with the display of large-scale abstraction in mind.

Larry Poons, Chil, 1972, acrylic on canvas, Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Gift of Fredrik S. Eaton, 2013-113 © Larry Poons / SODRAC, Montreal / VAGA, New York (2015)

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