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Albright 'Action' Viewed from the perspective of rival art critics, the lauded 'Action/Abstraction' exhibition presents a fresh look at our returning modern art masterpieces

One of the greatest cultural pleasures of living in Buffalo goes a little something like this: Walk through the doors of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, hang a right, and find yourself surrounded by a half dozen of the most important paintings of the 20th century.

But if at any time in the last year you've gone searching for the gems that have become synonymous with a visit to the gallery -- from Willem de Kooning's inspired masterpiece "Gotham News" and Mark Rothko's luminous "Orange and Yellow" to Jackson Pollock's brilliantly chaotic "Convergence" and Arshile Gorky's acid-trip-on-canvas "The Liver is in the Cock's Comb" -- you'd have been out of luck.

Starting Friday, art lovers across the region can breathe a collective sigh of relief as the gallery welcomes home its abstract expressionist masterpieces from some well deserved time in the national spotlight.

The jewels of the Albright-Knox collection form the bedrock of the epic and internationally lauded touring exhibition "Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976," which winds up its three-city tour with a four-month run in Buffalo.

Upon their return, the landmark pieces of de Kooning, Pollock, Gorky, Clyfford Still and many others from the gallery's collection bring with them a reputation that has only been fortified during their absence, when thousands of museumgoers had a chance to gawk at Buffalo's masterpieces in the shimmering new context provided by "Action/Abstraction."

The show, which began last May at the Jewish Museum in New York City, has earned wide praise for its intelligent, culturally conscious and visually exhilarating treatment of the heyday of abstract expressionism, America's first great art movement and the central strength of the Albright-Knox permanent collection.

In addition to receiving laudatory reviews in the New York Times, Art in America, Artforum and elsewhere, the show appeared on New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl's list of 2008's top 10 museum exhibitions and was recently named New York City's best thematic museum show of 2008 by the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics.

"I'm thrilled that the critical mass of the exhibition comes from our collection," said Albright-Knox Senior Curator Douglas Dreishpoon, who served as one of three consulting curators for the exhibition along with the show's main curator Norman Kleeblatt of the Jewish Museum. "It's a really great show for us and it affirms everything about our history and that movement that's important."

That movement, of course, is abstract expressionism, and the Albright-Knox's history is inextricably tied up with it. Because of the museum's phenomenally prescient former custodians -- the dynamic duo of former longtime director Gordon Smith and board president Seymour H. Knox Jr. -- Western New York became an important center for America's first major artistic movement even while it was in its infancy. Because of those iconic paintings by Still, de Kooning, Rothko and Pollock that live in the Albright-Knox, the world finally started paying attention to America and its artists.

>Re-evaluating the movement

"Action/Abstraction," for all the visual fireworks delivered by the first-rate pieces its curators have chosen to fill it, is at heart a deeply intellectual exhibition. It's the first major museum exhibition on the movement in more than 20 years (the last was 1987's "Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Developments" at the Albright-Knox).

Organized around the writings of two major critics, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the exhibition's goal is essentially to re-evaluate the whole of abstract expressionism, fill in some gaps in the modern understanding of the movement and to provide a fresh take on what some still consider the purest and most compelling artistic movement ever to emerge from the United States. Dreishpoon called the show "a Monday morning quarterback's perspective" on the abstract expressionist movement.

It also affords an opportunity to rescue some important artists, who have often been sidelined as serious contributors to the abstract expressionist movement, from the prejudicial blind spots of history. They include Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner (the late wife of Jackson Pollock), the black painter Norman Lewis and gay artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

>The battle of the 'bergs'

The show is driven by the fierce rivalry between Greenberg and Rosenberg, both of whom championed abstract expressionism but disagreed vehemently over its finer points. The two critics were each towering figures in the New York art scene of the time, which was infinitesimally smaller and far more close-knit than today's swirling and multilayered art world. Artists and art lovers alike seemed to hang on the critics' every written word, and their rivalry may have marked the last time that critics of any medium wielded such power over the art they critiqued.

For Greenberg, the reigning king of abstract expressionism was Jackson Pollock, who he was the first to champion. For Rosenberg, it was Willem de Kooning. The reasons for lauding one over the other -- esoteric and self-involved as they may seem today -- are at once petty and substantive, complex and disarmingly simplistic.

Greenberg insisted that a piece of art should be evaluated only on the basis of its formal aspects -- like line, form, color, light and texture. Rosenberg, on the other hand, saw emerging abstract painting as the enactment of a kind of existential drama where the act of painting itself became almost more important than the painting that was finally produced. In Rosenberg's eyes, the canvas was "an arena in which to act," and all sorts of outside factors could and should enter the discussion.

But from the vantage point of 2009, why should the modern-day appreciator of art care about the intellectual squabbles of a pair of long-dead men over an artistic movement that kicked over and died more than 30 years ago?

"You try," Dreishpoon said, "and organize the best possible show you can and present it in a way that's compelling. And so when a person comes up the stairs, they're immediately drawn into the show and they're intrigued by the show. And then whatever happens from there is a function of the human being and their own personal interests and their own personal knowledge."

>Room to breathe

Dreishpoon, in custom-fitting "Action/Abstraction" for the Albright-Knox with the help of the gallery's Education Curator Mariann Smith and Susana Tejada, its head of research, has tried to make personal epiphanies among museumgoers as likely as possible. He's done that by positioning the exhibition's "cultural stations" at the very start of the exhibition and expanding them for the Buffalo run with additions from the Albright-Knox collection.

"What we were able to do here was to really bulk out the exhibition and add things to it which really fleshed out certain ideas and notions," Dreishpoon said, adding that the larger Albright-Knox exhibition spaces will give the often large-scale work plenty of room to breathe.

The stations, compiled by the art critic and historian Maurice Berger, provide an exhaustive amount of context for the way abstract expressionist art was perceived and treated in its time and the challenges that impede its acceptance to this day.

If you like the seemingly random and forceful brush strokes of the artists in the show but remain in the dark about what really animates them, "Action/Abstraction" offers a simple way to peer behind the canvas. If you're conversant in the AbEx movement and a have general knowledge of what came before and after, the show offers an opportunity to give your brain a workout and take a refresher course in the fascinating theories that inspire and flow out of modern art.

If, on the other hand, you hate abstract expressionism and think it can be done by 3-year-olds or chimpanzees -- a shockingly common view -- "Action/Abstraction" and its extensive accompanying catalog and cultural stations provide as engaging a chance as any to challenge your own perceptions.

For Ben Wilson, an art student at the Rochester Institute of Technology who visited the gallery on a recent Friday night, getting over the hurdles involved in appreciating the work of artists like Still and Robert Motherwell (one major abstract expressionist whose work is not in the show) is a tough but rewarding struggle.

The painters he admires, Wilson said, aim for a "universal imagery that sort of transcends any [particular] imagery and gets toward their feelings, their expression." For him, Wilson added, experiencing a work of abstract art is about peering into the artist's brushwork and trying to pick out his or her individual personality.

And to Dreishpoon, the two critics at the heart of the show raise all sorts of interesting questions about the interplay between writer and artist, and the sometimes mammoth effects each has had on the other.

"Greenberg and Rosenberg, as critics, always brought their own point of view to the equation and to the matter at hand. Sometimes their views reflected the artists' intentions and sometimes they didn't," Dreishpoon said. "So there are these issues, where critical perception . . . could potentially create a personal crisis or an artistic and creative crisis, and the two points of view are not always the same. But that's the interesting thing: to figure out what the dance is."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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