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Guggenheim pulsates with Art of Another Kind

25th June 2012

Art of Another Kind, the name of a new exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, is a poetic nod to the 20th century French art critic Michel Tapie.

The writer published a gripping book in 1952 entitled Un Art Autre, the English, of course, being "art of another kind". It documented and critiqued the exponential and unexpected growth of a new art movement, which represented, self-evidently, a dramatic break with the past.

This show looks back to the 1950s and investigates the radical growth in experimentation, as artists sought to explore the power of art in more inventive ways, which was deliberately provocative and perceived to be polemical.

However, as the show reveals, institutions like the Guggenheim Museum supported and backed such pioneering endeavours, championing the ability of contemporary and avant-garde art to breathe new life into old ways.

James John Sweeney was at the centre of this. The famous curator, who was the museum’s director at the time, was fond of artists who liked nothing better than to confront the prevailing attitude.

Mr Sweeney wonderfully and precisely referred to these creative practitioners as "tastebakers", artists who "break open and enlarge artistic frontiers". That most certainly was the case, with the post-war abstractionists, the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Adolf Gottlieb, thumping down the art establishment’s outdated assumptions.

They achieved this through an emerging school of thought that was predicated on the idea "action painting", which saw the unconscious outpouring of emotions captured in chaotic splendour on a canvas or in sculpture or installation.

As the exhibition shows, with the emergence of other artists during this productive decade, painters like James Brook and Grace Hartigan, collagists like Robert Rauschenberg and Conrad Marca-Relli, and the ground-breaking Mark Rothko, the movement’s daringness grew and grew.

The show is commendable for its appreciation of Mr Sweeney’s prescience. He had the canny ability to not only recognise seminal pieces of work that would not be understood or accepted in its day, but realise which works would emerge as timeless classics.

It also shows his willingness to cultivate and promote European and Asian art in this field, where he again displayed foresight into the movement’s wider appeal, not geographically bound in the US.

"He had an eye for Asian art, embracing not only American abstractionists who borrowed Eastern themes but also Japanese artists like Yamaguchi and Kenzo Okada," explains Karen Rosenberg, from the New York Times.

"And he kept a close watch on the various regional strains of the European movement known as Art Informel, with its loose, blobby compositions and emphasis on unconventional materials."

What becomes palpably clear in this brilliant exhibition is that it is not just a concentrated examination of a powerful art movement within the confines of the Guggenheim Museum, though that does remain an important facet of the show, but a wider assessment of abstract expressionism.

The movement, though greatly misunderstood and underplayed, was strong enough to rise above the "rule of law". Greatness is often, comically and tragically, never appreciated at the time. No one is as good as the past until they too become part of history. With this ascension to seraph status, in their place emerges a new generation of under-appreciated artists.

They needn’t worry. If they produce work akin to Louise Bourgeois’ Femme Volage (1951), George Mathieu’s Painting (1952), Eduardo Chillida’s From Within (1953) and Alberto Burri’s Composition, history will vindicate them.

Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1949-1960 is on until September 12th 2012 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

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