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Reconsidering Abstraction

Even for art lovers, Abstract Expressionism can sometimes be a bit of a hard sell. Museum-goers who draw inspiration from the idyllic garden parties of the Impressionists and the breathtaking landscapes of the Hudson River School often throw up their hands in confusion, or even disgust, at the giant swaths of color, indelicate globs of paint, and seemingly incomprehensible shapes that often populate the works of Abstract Expressionism. “It’s just not for me,” they say, satisfied to ignore this one particular school of art in favor of almost anything else.

Not so fast, says the Nassau County Museum of Art. With the show AB-EX/RE-CON, running now through June 16, viewers are asked to reexamine their preconceptions of this critically acclaimed, but intensely polarizing, school of art. In addition to classics of Abstract Expressionism from decades past, the show also highlights the work of three living artists: Judith Godwin from New York City, Stan Brodsky from Huntington, and Rita Rogers from Rhode Island. Love AB-EX or hate it, it’s virtually impossible to see the show and deny the vibrance of the movement.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the show is the inclusion of pieces that aren’t Abstract Expressionism at all, but independent historical artifacts that complement the paintings on display with their shapes and colors: glazed pottery, centuries-old Chinese “Scholar’s Stones”, and even tools used by Neanderthals and Home Erectus millennia ago.

The idea, explains museum director, Dr. Karl Emil Willers, is to dispel the common notion that Abstract Expressionism is a new and somewhat alien thing that sprung from nowhere sometime in the 20th century; rather, finding beauty in otherwise meaningless patterns and shapes is something that has been integral to human culture from the very beginnings of civilization.

For newbies to Abstract Expressionism, it’s hard not to try to form narratives for the images before you; are the dribbles of paint, seemingly reminiscent of birds wings, supposed to bring to mind a creature taking flight? Or, in Heart of The Willow Sun (1957) by Theodoros Stamos, is the luminous orange mass in the center of the composition supposed to be reminiscent of a flame, or perhaps the birth of a sun?

While the movement typically rejects such tidy narratives, Willers notes that those who are tempted to apply a storyline to the paintings aren’t necessarily “doing it wrong,” in his opinion.

“Artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement wanted to communicate, above all else, something deeply personal that perhaps could not have been expressed any other way…I don’t think anyone who tries to personalize the paintings, find a story there, is doing anything wrong at all,” says Willers.

That acceptance, that willingness to accept that there’s no wrong way to look at art, seems to be at the heart of AB-EX/RE-CON; to make what was once forbidding seem inviting, exciting, and fresh.

Nassau County Museum of Art is located at One Museum Drive in Roslyn Harbor, just off Northern Boulevard, Route 25A, two traffic lights west of Glen Cove Road. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Call 484-9337 for current exhibitions, events, days/times and directions or log onto nassaumuseum.org.