Literally a hidden treasure at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the latest offering from their prints and drawings department, titled “American Abstract Expressionism: Works on Paper 1940s-1960s,” occupies the Lower Brown Corridor of the Caroline Wiess Law Building. It is, of course, the perfect intimate space to display the almost two dozen offerings selected by curators Dena Woodall and Lauren Rosenblum, and a nice surprise for those attending events in the auditorium.
Tracing the origins of this avant-garde style to New York City toward the end of World War II, the selections span works from 1937 to 1968, and show how important Houstonians were to the movement, with works by Dorothy Hood, Robert Ormerod Preusser, Richard Gordon Stout and Dick Wray.
The Preusser, a small watercolor only a few inches in height, is one of the oldest pieces in the exhibit, made when the artist was just 18 years of age. With subtle colors and movement, its layered composition pairs beautifully with an intimate fabric and watercolor collage by Anne Ryan, made about 15 years later.
While Wray’s paintings and watercolors tended to gravitate toward deep, saturated color palettes, his two offerings in the exhibit are monochromatic. Both from 1963, the ink and acrylic drawings show some delicate pen work, dominated by black and white swaths of angry clouds. They demonstrate his interest in the variety of mark-making and experimentation with materials.
Stout’s Escarpment is a nice surprise, an aerial-view landscape with the ups and downs of a winding road disappearing into the horizon. Using India ink and chalk, his calligraphic strokes and washes break apart into shapes against a midnight black horizon.
Also shunning her usual color is Hood’s Devastated Log with Emerging Spirit, with hundreds of teardrop shapes moving in circular and spiral patterns in a unified march towards a common goal. The piece is incredibly detailed, bisected by the tree trunk (or log) with its wispy spirit curling up into the sky.
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Other monochromatic pieces in the exhibit include ink drawings by James Brooks, Richard Stankiewicz and Robert Motherwell; a lithograph by Lawrence Calcagno; an oil painting by Ray Parker; and an oil, charcoal and crayon drawing by Jack Tworkov.
Some of the colorful works are quite interesting, showing the variety in which Abstract Expressionism grew and evolved over the few decades represented here. Snake, by William Baziotes, is anchored by a green serpent on its lower horizon with a tan character peeking down from a purple sky. Norman Bluhm’s Red Curtain, circa 1955, features a dark and deeply saturated watercolor and ink drawing with a heavy base. Maurice Golubov, an American born in Russia, has the other oldest piece in the show, 1937’s White Giants. His whitewashed architectural elements frame the lone man against a brown backdrop in this gouache on wove paper.
Other works in color include oil paintings by Michael Goldberg and Vivienne Thaul Wechter, a collage by Alfred Leslie, a color lithograph by Louise Nevelson, a gouache by Ary Stillman, and a monotype by Mark Tobey.
“American Abstract Expressionism: Works on Paper 1940s-1960s” continues through February 7, 2016 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, open Tuesdays and Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays 12:15 to 7 p.m., 713-639-7300, mfah.org. $15.