History Lesson in Abstraction, Cutting Across the Americas





Art museums are in the business of sorting out history. And it often falls to our smaller institutions to tackle the initial, broad-stroke cuts. Over the years the Newark Museum has taken on this path-clearing role with relish, particularly when the histories are transcultural in scope. It does so again in “Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920s-50s,” the capstone exhibition of the museum’s centennial.

In this case, a chunk of the history is in Newark’s collection. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the museum assiduously bought, sometimes straight from artists’ studios, a type of American painting and sculpture known as geometric abstraction. It’s attractive stuff: intimate in scale and coolly design-savvy, but shot through with political and personal content.

For all its virtues, such art never found a wide audience. Dismissed as decorative and un-American in the isolationist 1930s, it was all but submerged in the flood tide of Abstract Expressionism. Newark was left with superlative holdings in an art no one knew or cared much about....

An urban vision is the theme of the show’s first section. It’s there in a 1934 painting of rainbow-hued machine parts by the New York artist Paul Kelpe and in Theodore Roszak’s copper-and-steel “Airport Structure” (1932), which looks like a cross between a radio tower and a kitchen appliance. And we find it again in the striking 1936 painting “Constructivist Forms” by the Argentine artist Hector Ragni, with a single rectangular upright slab as assertively blank as an International-style modernist monument, and also in the interlocking units of Geraldo de Barros’s “Movement Counter Movement,” which suggests a floating space station....


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