Early in his career George Hemphill sat down with DC curator Walter Hopps to ask his opinion on what was the “most important movement in American art.” In that 1979 conversation, Hopps confidently stated that Abstract Expressionism took the crown, and that it had had the most profound impact on the American, and even the international, art scene. Flash forward a few decades, and today, HEMPHILL Fine Arts is showcasing Abstract Expressionist works by contemporary American artists inspired by that very same dialogue with Walter Hopps. Rather than exclusively showing works created by late Abstract Expressionists, Hemphill challenges Hopps’ suggestion that the style was already past in the late 70s, and instead focuses on the evident continuum of Abstract Expressionism in today’s art landscape.
The argument that serves as the motivation for the exhibition is that Abstract Expressionism is still present, and further, that the kind of work that can be identified with it now stretches its definition. The “Abstract Expressionist” works shown in More or Less aim to demonstrate that the style encompasses both minimalist and maximalist works. This represents two extremes along a spectrum, providing some parameters to the genre. Within the exhibition, both styles are shown along with a number of works that could be perceived as “in between.” The beauty of Abstract Expressionism is that the styles within this broader definition of the genre use the same tools and conventions, but to varying degrees to produce vastly different visual depictions.
When first walking into the gallery, the visitor receives an information sheet listing all of the works in the exhibition. The packet provides basic information such as artist’s name, title, materials used, size, and price. Next to each description is a small, thumbnail picture of the work to help guide the viewer through the gallery. Perhaps intentionally, there is no indication of whether the work falls in the minimalist or maximalist category in the descriptions. This allows viewers to come to their own conclusions about whether a work is minimalist, maximalist or a combination of the two. By allowing the viewer to determine the style, it is natural to question what definitions were used to decide whether works were considered Abstract Expressionist when curating the exhibition. If the viewer is the one making the determination, is there, then, the possibility that not everyone will have the same key take away–that the Abstract Expressionist movement is still in progress, or at the least, that it is having a renaissance of sorts?
As a gallery visitor walks around the space, there are number of visual and thematic juxtapositions at play. Devoid of identifier information next to each work, it is difficult to distinguish which ones are new versus the works created by late artists. This speaks to the notion that Abstract Expressionism continues to exist, and has just as strong of a presence in and impact on the contemporary American art scene as it did in the 1950s and 1960s.
Along with the origin of the works, there is also an obvious visual contrast between the colorful, ‘busy’ works with those that were more neutral or subtle in appearance. As a result, there is a visual balance that becomes prevalent, creating a harmony between the more abrasive and softer works. One example of this is Amber Robles-Gordon’s Interdimensional Realms I juxtaposed to Robin Rose’s Deep Breathing on the adjacent wall. Gordon’s piece is energetic with different colors, shapes and images within the composition. This diverges with Rose’s piece that is consistent, soft, and rhythmic. As the name implies, it has soothing, calming effect on the viewer.
Additionally, as viewers walk into the main room of the gallery, they will find Douglas Witmer’s When in Doubt adjacent to Brett Smith’s 33.7905, -84.3874 (Scaffold & Thicket Series). On one hand, you see Witmer’s acrylic painting with a clean, bright and powerful blue square in its center. Right next to it, you find Smith’s oil and wax on panel which, while lacking multiple colors, has intricate lines and designs that engage and encourage the viewer to take a closer look.
More or Less at HEMPHILL Fine Arts highlights a complex and unfinished discussion in the contemporary art world. It is safe to say that the nuances and styles enveloped by the Abstract Expressionist movement continue to unfold; yet, it is unclear which direction the conversation will go. Will each style become genres of its own, or will Abstract Expressionism ultimately be defined by some sort of combination of the two extremes? To those who support Hemphill’s claim, the exhibition is effective in showcasing the wide variety of works, both new and old, that fall under the Abstract Expressionist umbrella. However, for those who may not completely agree, or are skeptical, an argument could be made that perhaps some of the works in the show are too figurative or stretch the definition of Abstract Expressionism too much. The fact that it is left up to the viewer’s discretion could potentially be misleading. Especially for the works that may not neatly fit into minimalist or maximalist categories, the lack of description and direction allows room for healthy critique and skepticism about whether a specific work can actually be described as Abstract Expressionism. The continuum of Abstract Expressionism is an intriguing conversation, and one that HEMPHILL Fine Arts encourages its viewers to further explore with the current exhibition.