In the vast tangle of American art history, many unanswered questions remain hidden in plain sight. They’re just waiting for the right curator to come along and solve them.In the UB Anderson gallery, an important question that now seems obvious in retrospect receives a concise and elegant answer: How did the G.I. Bill – widely acknowledged for jumpstarting the American economy after World War II – change the trajectory of the American art world?
While countless other exhibitions have certainly traced the variegated influence of World War II and American veterans on the development of art in America, “On the Front Lines: Military Veterans and the Art Students League of America” succeeds by taking a focused approach. The show was initiated by Art Students League curator Jillian Russo with key additions from the UB gallery’s collection and elsewhere chosen by Anderson Gallery curator Robert Scalise and others. It tells a fascinating story about the G.I. Bill’s crucial role in the direction of abstract painting.
Among the veterans who launched their careers via the league or under its influence were Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, Paul Jenkins and Cy Twombly, who was not a league student, but a habitué. Others less well known to the general public include Al Held, Michael Goldberg, Knox Martin and John Hultberg.
The exhibition’s first statement, the jarring 1960 abstraction “Red, White and Black” by league instructor Charles Alston, is a strong and self-critical one. This stroke of rectangular violence by a black artist and teacher made in response to the daily horrors of the Civil Rights movement, as Russo notes in her illuminating catalog essay, could be read as a commentary on the failures of the G.I. Bill to provide equal opportunities for non-white veterans.
It’s with this knowledge that we move into the rest of the exhibition, which gives us a strong 1949 abstraction by Rauschenberg that seems paused somewhere between Arthur Dove and de Kooning, but on its way to a different place. Continuing the tone set by Alston’s piece, the show smartly includes Anthony Palumbo’s 1947 painting “Worker in the Field,” which shows a black sharecropper emerging from a field and, perhaps, on his way north.
The exhibition features strong pieces from Jenkins whose experiments with pouring paint across a canvas eventually produced two side-by-side stunners here, the riotous “Phenomena of Air Striae” from 1959 and the yellow 1957 madness that is “Egyptian Basilisk.”
The impasto-heavy approach of Held is to be appreciated perhaps more in the glorious globular details of the pigment than in the total composition – though a bout of very long looking might change that instant impression.
In stark contrast to Held’s painterly approach is a fascinating piece by Donald Judd, the 1956 painting “Welfare Island,” which looks comparatively mechanized in its approach and seems to presage his later and better-known minimalist sculptures that seem to exist in every major art museum from Buffalo to Bucharest.
The show smartly includes John Hultberg’s wild, geometric dreamscape “Panorama” from 1957, a piece from the Anderson Gallery collection filled with shadowy figures, unidentifiable objects and endless intrigue.
Relegated to the back corner, and with good reason, is a collection of more recent works by former league members that seem unfinished, anachronistic or both. While the impulse to give viewers a “where are they now” update is understandable, the shift in focus isn’t worth it.
What is worth it is the addition of the miniature exhibition “Paul Jenkins: Chapel of Meditation,” which features four of his mammoth canvases from the 1970s. The pieces, which seem to echo the landscape in distinct ways with swaths of paint evoking running streams or puffs of snow, are the result of techniques Jenkins practiced and refined at the league.
They are, true to the promise, meditative in nature. Like the show itself and the artists who took advantage of the G.I. Bill to experiment with their craft, they offer, as the wall text eloquently puts it, “a challenge to us all: to see with more than our eyes.”
What: “On the Front Lines: Military Veterans at the Art Students League of New York”
When: Through Aug. 7
Where: University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, 1 Martha Jackson Place
Info: 829-3754 or ubartgalleries.buffalo.edu