WILLIAMSTOWN -- The story of art sometimes reads like a maze.
That is the format of a new exhibition, "Make It New: Abstract Painting From the National Gallery of Art: 1950-1975," opening at the Clark Art Institute this weekend. It looks at the ways mid-20th century abstract artists reacted to each other’s work, colliding unpredictably, rethinking the old, and forging new directions -- thus the name "Make It New."
Organized by Harry Cooper, curator of modern art at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with David Breslin, associate director of contemporary projects at the Clark, the exhibition of 35 paintings by as many artists will hang through Oct. 13.
"It’s not just a checklist of big names," Breslin said, but one that aims for diversity by including women like Joan Mitchell, Jo Baer and Lee Bontecou; artists of color like Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas; and others of various nationalities.
Cooper’s catalog essay discusses how a handful of painters -- Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis and Cy Twombly among them -- reacted in specific ways to Jackson Pollock’s groundbreaking experiments with drip painting. He then looks at others who had little direct connection with Pollock or who did not technically fall within abstract painting’s two major subcategories -- Abstract Expressionism or Color Field painting.
"It’s not a traditional show in that it doesn’t follow a chronology," Cooper said. "Art history loves chronology; one movement following another, each reacting to the previous one.
"It’s not about genius either," he went on. "That’s another traditional mode of art history: the idea of genius coming along and breaking everything open and [leaving] followers in place until another genius comes along.
"I think Pollock was a genius," he said, "but I’m not using that word or emphasizing that. It’s more about strategy. Pollock was this major figure. How do you deal with that as someone coming after Pollock? What part of Pollock are you going to take? What part of Pollock are you going to leave behind?"
Those are the questions and the decisions he examines in an essay he says viewers can read if they wish, but should not feel handicapped if they don’t.
"The paintings are visually stunning," he said, adding: "This is abstract art and one of the dogmas of abstraction is that it speaks for itself."
Abstract art emerged in early 20th century Europe, led by artists like Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), who defined art not by what it represented, but by what it actually was -- lines, colors, patterns, textures, shapes -- arranged in a way that evoked a response. It developed along different pathways in Europe and the United States through the first half of the century, its center shifting geographically to New York with the outbreak of World War II.
Once here, it evolved into two notable subcategories categories: New York-based Abstract Expressionism, a psychologically self-expressive style based on gestural brushwork; and Washington-based Color Field painting, which employed large areas of poured flat color. Pollock was a poster child for the former; Morris Louis for the latter.
Pollock, known best for the "drip paintings" he made between 1947 and his death in an auto accident in 1956, worked by flinging paint at canvas with a brush or turkey baster to achieve webs of drips and splatters. His paintings were unlike anything that had been done before and unique in establishing a sense of space without recognizable shapes, depth or definition.
His followers, Cooper said, faced the near impossibility of trying to build upon what he’d done without seeming imitative.
Among the six whose journeys he traces, Frank Stella found his footing in a series of "Black Paintings," patterns of black bands that "become ‘a kind of force field’ uniting a variety of marks into one."
Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis poured rather than flung paint on canvas and allowed it to run and stain, gaining the Color Field label.
Robert Ryman went back to using brushes to apply paint thickly white-on-white, while Cy Twombly scratched and marked his canvases as if tagging graffiti, and Simon Hantai painted then crumbled his to create cracks and fissures.
The high-ceiling galleries are arranged so viewers can take in the different approaches at the same time.
Cooper, a visiting fellow in the Clark’s Research and Academic program in 2001, was approached by Clark director Michael Conforti in 2012 to curate a show that would open the institute’s new gallery spaces designed by Pritzker-Prize winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando.
Conforti suggested modern art, something founders Sterling and Francine Clark did not collect themselves, and a quarter-century time frame dating from the drafting of the Clark’s charter in 1950.
By coincidence, the East Wing of the National Gallery, where its modern art is displayed, was scheduled to close for renovations around the time of the Clark’s reopening. That freed portions of its collection to travel to Williamstown.
Abstract art might seem out of place at the Clark, known for its pre-20th century European collection, particularly the French Impressionists, but it will become less so. Conforti says the institute has to broaden its reach to keep pace with contemporary curatorial studies or risk becoming an historical "fossil."
There have already been several small shows of contemporary art at the Clark’s satellite Stone Hill Center completed in 2008. And Breslin said an exhibition of "immersive video installations" is under discussion.
"You’ll not see a radical departure from what the Clark has done," he said, "but the offerings will be broader."