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Abstraction: Works from the Collection

On View Tuesday, May 7–Wednesday, November 6, 2002

The Burchfield Penney Art Center and M&T Bank presented two exhibitions that illustrated developments in twentieth-century abstraction by many of Western New York’s most accomplished artists, representing the full gamut of conceptual and technical perspectives. Their works parallel the progress made when art became more psychologically symbolic to express the radical historical and technological changes occurring in the world.

While the foundations for abstract art developed in Europe during the nineteenth century with the atmospheric works of the Impressionists, the twentieth century saw the most fundamental changes. At the turn of the century, Post-Impressionists such as Paul Cezanne altered the pictorial concept of space, flattening it and dispensing with Renaissance concepts of perspective. Shortly afterwards Cubists, such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, broke down rational space further, presenting multiple viewpoints of a subject in two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional space. Still, these artists referred to recognizable subject matter. Even more forward thinking, Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky painted the first non-objective compositions based on theory, music or spirituality. The great American contribution was Abstract Expressionism, beginning about 1943, as a way to convey unconscious human emotions. In later decades, Minimalists tried to reduce art to its bare essentials, proclaiming that their work had no subject—only the materials from which it was made.

Paintings, sculpture and works on paper from the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center illustrated decades of abstraction by artists associated with Buffalo and Western New York State. The first exhibition concentrated on two major directions in abstraction: organic and geometric. Organic abstraction derives from forms found in nature, from plants and animals in the landscape, as well as the human body. Curvilinear form, dimensionality, mass, texture, and colors from a muted palette characterize these works. Diametrically opposed to organic abstraction, geometric abstraction comes from the analytical and mechanistic realms. Hard lines, flat areas of space, and bright, unnatural colors often characterize these works. A highly evolved level of design dominates the compositions. Geometric abstraction is often viewed as art for art’s sake. Highlights of the exhibition included a large oil by Harriet Greif that references the horizontal structures of landscape, prints by Robert Squeri that celebrate the purity of form, and a vigorously painted canvas by Eugene Vass as well as three of his totemic wooden sculptures.

The second exhibition concentrated on works from the 1980s and 1990s. Some artists, such as Charles Clough, Robert L. Flock, and Katrin Jurati, were represented by several examples of their work, illustrating their commitment to Abstract Expression. Walter A. Prochownik, who exemplifies a lifelong devotion to abstraction and meticulous craftsmanship, was represented in both exhibitions. These satellite exhibitions continued the series sponsored by M&T Bank that enable the Burchfield Penney to share our collections with the downtown Buffalo audience.