Lessons In Abstraction: The Loeb’s First Attraction of the Fall

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Jack Owen ’14 is the sole Arts Editor. Jack is an English major.

“What’s the point? What even is it? Couldn’t anybody do that?” These are the reactions that many of us experience when viewing abstract art. We struggle to embrace a piece that does not appear to convey any familiar image or scene, dismissing it as a messy scribble or dot.  However, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s current exhibition, “Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art from the Permanent Collection,” challenges spectators to confront their notions towards abstraction. The exhibit will be open through the first week of school.

“Like much abstract art, it’s not always easy for us to embrace, understand and accept,” explained James Mundy, Director of the Loeb. “There’s nothing better than having a challenge the first week back on campus, so in a way it will challenge the visitor to address some of the aesthetic issues of contemporary art.”

Mundy asserted that “Pictures of Nothing” is the perfect exhibit to kick off the fall semester, encouraging new students and old to expand their perceptions of abstraction and representation. The exhibition is inspired by the late Kirk Varnedoe, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and his famous lectures held in 2003 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Varnedoe’s notes from the lectures were edited and included in his 2006 posthumous book, Pictures of Nothing. The Loeb decided to adopt the book’s title for their exhibition, paying homage to Varnedoe’s work.

“The content is about nonrepresentational art over a period of roughly 70 or 80 years that includes mostly American and some European works, and it’s divided into 3 different categories: gesture, geometry and pattern,” said Mundy.

By dividing the exhibit into three distinct categories, the Loeb seeks to showcase the different formal characteristics of geometry, gesture and pattern and the parallels between the three. The over fifty works, most of which are gifts from alumnae/i, include various mediums, such as sculpture, painting, prints, drawings and some photography.

Though many of the pieces are from the middle of the 20th century—the peak of abstract painting in New York—the exhibit spans from the 1930s to 2010s, incorporating movements ranging from surrealism to abstract expression. The extensive exhibit forces viewers to examine how surrealism sought to illuminate the subconscious, how hard edge painters worked to utilize an economy of form and how gestural pieces seek to convey raw, ephemeral emotion.

“It really does showcase much of what we have acquired— a lot of it quite recently in this field and period,” Mundy explained. “We were looking to tie together these acquisitions and things that we hadn’t showcased in a while, particularly works on paper.”

Mundy asserted that “Pictures of Nothing” is a world-class exhibit that mirrors the experience one may have while visiting the MoMA in New York City. “From Jasper Johns to Ellsworth Kelly to Jackson Pollock, there are many artists who are very much a part of the experience if you were to go to the MoMA or another museum of modern and contemporary art,” he stated.

Furthermore, the exhibition includes many works by female artists. “A number of women artists are represented, which better reflects the state of art in the late 20th century in terms of women’s contributions to the field,” Mundy said. “Vassar has always had a very strong component of fine work by women artists. Sometimes people think of postwar abstraction as a very macho thing, but there were many women involved as well.” The exhibit includes works by Helen Frankenthaler, a female pioneer in postwar abstract expressionism, among others.

To conclude the exhibit, artist Thomas Nozkowski will give a lecture titled “Pictures of Something” on September 6 at 5:30 p.m. in Taylor Hall, room 203. Nozkowski, an abstract painter, has had over 71 one-person shows since 1979, and has work featured in the permanent collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.

“Pictures of Nothing” will be up at the Loeb through September 8.

“During the first few days back on campus, we’re up and running at full speed and there is something awfully good for the students to come see,” said Mundy. “It won’t be up that long after your return!”

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