American Icons

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

Mod, Ab Ex,
Mini and Pop

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“Cité” (1951), by Ellsworth Kelly. © Ellsworth Kelly © SFMOMA. Photo: Ben Blackwell

A great follow-up to “Keys to a Passion” at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, an original and illuminating exhibition on the art of the first half of the 20th century (reviewed last week in Paris Update), is “American Icons” at the Grand Palais, which rounds out the story of 20th-century art started at the Vuitton show, picking up the plot after World War II and spotlighting some of the major names in postwar art in the United States in another succinct, well-put-together show.

The exhibition, a sneak preview of what will be presented in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when its new extension is finished next year, is made up of works from the museum and from the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, one of the world’s largest private collections of postwar art.

With 14 artists and 49 works, the show is a pleasant breeze through some 50 years of art history, beginning with four magical works

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“Tower with Painting” (1951), by Alexander Calder. © Calder Foundation New-York/ADAGP, Paris 2015 © SFMOMA. Photo: Ian Reeves

from Alexander Calder’s prime period, the 1950s, their delicately balanced elements bobbing gracefully in the gentle air currents.

The minimalists (a term invented by the critics; apparently the artists never thought of themselves as such) are well represented by Sol LeWitt’s first wall drawing, “Wall Grid (3 x 3)” (1966); two multiple-box sculptures by Donald Judd; and a surprisingly effective sculpture by Carl Andre, “Parisite” (1984), a large copper cross laid out on the floor and meant to be walked on, creating an interactive dialogue with the visitor, in keeping with Andre’s view that an artwork does not exist without the space it occupies and its relation to people. Its name, by the way, is a pun referring to the fact that the work was created in Paris

Relatives of the minimalists on show here include Brice Marden, Ellsworth Kelly and the only woman in the exhibition, Agnes Martin, whose abstract paintings in subtle colors with penciled-on grids and lines are strangely beautiful and moving. (Click here for an excellent article on the women artists of the period whose outstanding work is only now gaining recognition.)

The Abstract Expressionist painters are not well-represented in the show, with the exception of two colorful pieces by Richard

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“Berkeley #23” (1955), by Richard Diebenkorn. © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation © SFMOMA. Photo: Richard Grant

Diebenkorn, but one of the defectors from the movement, Philip Guston, is. An early adherent, he is represented by a primarily red-and-black abstract painting from 1955, “For M.,” and two works that seem to be telling stories: “Evidence” (1970), in which a man lies on a sofa with objects piled up all around him and a large finger pointing accusingly in the upper right-hand corner, and “Back View” (1977), in which we see a man walking away, carrying on his back what look like many pairs

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“Back View” (1977), by Philip Guston. © SFMOMA. Photo: Don Myer

of shoes. These almost cartoonlike works border on abstraction and must be studied to decipher their mysterious images.

Among the other artists on show are Chuck Close (pointillist portraits of himself, family and friends), Dan Flavin (neon light installations) and Cy Twombly (scribbles and squiggles with historical allusions).

Representing Pop Art are two of the biggies: Roy Lichtenstein, with two comic-book-
inspired paintings, and, of course, Andy Warhol, with several works, including the bright and seemingly cheery “Liz #6” (1963). Nearby is “National Velvet” (1963), multiple repetitions of the same black-and-white image of the luminous young Elizabeth Taylor on horseback, which becomes increasingly faded the more it is repeated, expressing the darker side of Warhol, whom curator Gary Garrels considers an existential artist who is deeply aware of the fragility of life.

While the exhibition, thoughtfully hung to create resonances between the works of different artists, is not fully representative of American art in the second-half the 20th century, I recommend it as a highly enjoyable sampler of postwar art in the country.

Heidi Ellison

Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais: Galerie Sud-est, 75008 Paris. Métro: Champs-Elysées Clemenceau. Tel.: 01 44 13 17 17. Open 10am-8pm, until 10pm on Wednesday. Closed Tuesday. Admission: €12. Through June 22, 2015.

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