Friday, May 3, 2013

Schadenfreude on Display: The Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, Part 4


     Over the past few weeks, I’ve been documenting the rise and fall of Huntington Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art.  Over forty years after its closure, it’s hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those who thought the Gallery could succeed and thrive in the competitive New York art scene.  To run the GoMA, Hartford chose Carl J. Weinhardt as curator.  Weinhardt was initially reluctant to run the Gallery (Hartford’s iconoclastic views on abstract art were well known at the time) but was eventually won over and hoped the museum could rise above its associations with a man whose artistic philosophy was widely derided by established critics. In the March 21st, 1961 issue of the New Yorker, Weinhardt stated:

            “What I really want for the Museum is to be pro, not anti. I feel we should show things because we are for them, and not simply because we are against what we’re not showing” and hoped that “the Gallery may stimulate new trends in this direction, in addition to throwing light on what already exists and is being neglected by other museums.”

      It wasn’t to be.  The lackluster collection, partnered with Hartford’s anti-abstraction stance, doomed the museum.   His beliefs were almost comically outdated at a time when abstraction and non-objective art were commonly accepted and collected by museums and institutions across the county.  After World War II, non-objective art had helped put America on the map as a serious player in the art world, and one could argue that the art infrastructure that grew in New York after the war was built squarely on the shoulders of abstraction (especially the work of the Abstract Expressionists).  Simply put, abstraction was firmly established as a valid art form by the 1960s. By ignoring it Hartford was ignoring a large swath of art history, one widely acknowledged as being an important (if not the most important) contribution to art histroy of the twentieth century. 

      There were certainly those who were distrustful of abstract and non-objective art back then, as there are today.  Perhaps we look at such works and ask ourselves “why is this art?”  There are those who believe that these artists were con men, pawning nonsense off on an unsuspecting public, but this couldn't be farther from the truth.  The Abstract Expressionists were trying new things and experimenting with new forms.  Unsatisfied with the status quo, they challenged the system and created works that still cause us to ask questions, and don't offer up easy answers.  The fact that a Jackson Pollock painting made sixty years ago can still engender fierce debate speaks to the power art has to engage our mind, as well of question our basic expectation of what art can be.

     Abstract art isn’t always easy to read or appreciate, mainly because it’s so open to interpretation.   We may not understand abstract art when we first look at.  Maybe we find it downright confounding.  I think the main obstacle people face when interpreting abstract art is coming to a work with the belief that it has one set interpretation that we can’t see.  We may look at it and say “what’s this about?”, thinking the artist intended a single meaning that everyone has to see.  If we can’t see it, then we’re just not getting it.  What we often don’t realize is that the meaning is whatever we make it.  We have the power to make the work about anything we want, which in turn makes the work relevant to us.   It can evoke deep emotions, or we may like the colors that the artist used.   Perhaps it doesn't move us at all, and that's a valid response, too.  Abstract art can mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people.  It offers such a wide range of personal interpretations that the works can remain relevant for extremely long periods of time.  Realistic art can occupy this role in our lives too, of course, but Hartford wasn’t willing to acknowledge the fact that abstract art can move us just as much as a realistic image.   Instead, he played into the old misconception that abstract art was reserved for the elite, and could only be understood by art historians.  He thought he was giving the public what they wanted, but in the end he sold us all short.  The human mind has an amazing capacity to find meaning in the abstract.  It can help us learn more about our own minds, as well as the world around us.  Hartford refused to recognize this, and in turn created a reverse ivory tower, an isolated island (both literally and figuratively) on Columbus Circle that was seen as irrelevant before it even opened its doors.

Next week, I start a new topic.  It might be something you've never heard of before. 

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