Your intuition might suggest otherwise, but abstraction has been the rule and realism the exception in art. From the caves of Chauvet to the walls of Canyon de Chelly, artists have always extrapolated from the material world to create a pictorial language. (And a written one: most of the world’s writing systems were originally based on an abstract pictorial form.) Pure abstraction — nonobjective design and mark marking — has an even longer pedigree, stretching back to the earliest known examples of hominid art and continuing today through material cultures around the world. The Abstract Impulse, drawn mainly from the Sears Museum of Art’s permanent collection, touches briefly on the latter, but focuses primarily on abstraction as a range of strategies in 20th-century fine art.
Dozens of works fill the Sears Art Museum’s long, open space, ranging from purely nonobjective work to various pictorial manipulations with reference to the physical world. As is the case for many exhibits at the Sears, the exhibition suffers from the nature of the gallery. Like the UMFA’s Grand Hall, it’s wonderfully spacious, but better suited to accommodating receptions than art exhibitions. Big works might be able to hold in such a space, but generally at the Sears, and in this case in particular, the works are modest in size and too many of them are hung together, so the works resemble a line of cars in rush hour traffic with little opportunity to communicate with each other or the audience.
On the gallery’s north wall, one felicitous grouping of five works stands out in a long line of works. On the left and right side are a pair of paintings by former Utah State University professor Harrison Groutage, when he was working in a loose, urban style; these frame two watercolors by George Dibble, an early practitioner of a loosely cubist interpretation of the Utah landscape, which in turn frame, in the center of the five, a work by Dale Gibbs, a teacher at Highland High in the 1970s who worked in the style of the New York School. The quintet of images manages to say something about the relationship of applying abstract principals to a painting with varying degrees of recognizable subject matter. Had it been organized in a single room or on a separate, individual wall, rather than as part of a line of dozens of works, this fortunate grouping might have made a stronger impact.
The whole long gallery space at the Sears is only broken up by two floating walls which provide the backdrop for some of the largest works. GK Reiser’s large acrylic panel from 2020, a bright work in green and yellow with a leaf motif, will greet most visitors. On the wall’s verso, two fine rugs by Diné artists Winnie James and Mary Hosteiney embody a long tradition of abstract art: geometric designs that can also function as symbolic imagery used in an art form that is rooted in practical purposes. In between, a painting by the late Raymond Kardas done in a “Dazzler” pattern, while likely executed in the spirit of appreciation would be considered cultural appropriation by many today. The second wall, on the far end of the museum, is home to a large acrylic by Edith Carlson. In 1991, George Dibble, who in addition to being a fine artist was the state’s principal art critic for several decades, called her works “judicious combinations of simplified geometrical forms that interact within fields of closely managed gradations and progressions: so sensitively functional that evolutions are less like the moving hands on a clock than the delicacy of a shadow changing the contours of a cloud.” From a distance, the painting looks like a uniform orange rectangle, but when close enough that the work can envelope you, it reveals itself to be a subtly shifting range of tones. It’s also also a complementary backdrop to the blue tones of Andrew Kosorok’s nearby glass sculptures — the one advantage of this cavernous space is there is plenty of room for sculpture and you’ll find several works by Kosorok, as well as works by Deborah Laux, Cathryn McCormick and others.
Just beyond this far wall, you’ll find a sort of private wall dedicated to the works of Roman Andrus (you’ll have to completely ignore the figurative sculptures stored there, which have no relationship to the rest of the exhibit). It’s a fine collection of lithographs and you’ll find a few more sprinkled throughout the rest of the exhibit. A BYU professor in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, Andrus developed an expressionistic mode of painting and printmaking inspired by the expressive lines of the Utah landscape. Shed of any color, these works, highlighting shifts in dark and light tones, still pack a punch, and point towards an almost endless realm of pictorial possibilities.
The curators might have done something similar with the work of Colleen Gianatiempo, a Bay-area artist whose practice employs a variety of techniques, including collage, drips, sprays and brushwork. The way they are spread along one wall, alternating with works by other artists, makes one suspect they were used to fill up space. Curators could have edited out a few and left more breathing room overall; or, because the works are not doing anything special for their neighbors, Gianatiempo’s pieces could have been collected together on a wall or in an alcove, like Andrus’, the better to examine their family resemblances and differences.
One advantage of this eclectic, somewhat directionless exhibit, is it offers an opportunity to pull works from storage, gems that might not fit a more strictly organized exhibition. Leo Krikorian had no real relationship to Utah, but because his niece and heir retired to Sanpete County, you’ll find his works sprinkled throughout the state (including several at the Fairview Museum of Art where they stick out like a minimal sore thumb among the Fairbanks sculptures and naturalistic landscapes). Sears hosted a retrospective for the artist in 2018 and you’ll find two of his works here. Krikorian was a Beat-era artist from the Bay area who studied at Black Mountain College. He might have been most famous for operating the North Beach bar The Place but his crisp, geometric abstractions, which at times employ reverse symmetry and optical illusions and display a sensitive color sense, deserve to be appreciated.
Harry Bertoia is another surprise in The Abstract Impulse. An inventive Italian-born American sculptor, Bertoia also designed furniture, worked with sound sculpture and, at least early in his career, painted. The piece at the Sears, on loan from the Harry Bertoia Foundation, was done in 1948, when the artist was in California and experimenting with a painting style influenced by biomorphic surrealism. The landscape has a dreamlike quality, with some affinity for the fanciful landscapes found in the backgrounds of Renaissance paintings, but it could also easily be imagined as a bird-eye rendering of some portion of the Colorado plateau.
Gaell Lindstrom is certainly much better known to local audiences (a Utah State University professor, he retired to the St. George area), but this exhibition offers an opportunity to see him in a different light. We’ll have an opportunity to speak of it more in our Before Now series, but during the traditional vs. modern debates of the 1950s, Lindstrom became a sort of champion for the traditional cause, winning several of the awards in that category at the state’s major exhibitions. Even then that categorization ignored some of his experimental impulses, which would come to the fore in the late ’60s and early ’70s, especially after he spent time studying in Asia. “Tenaments,” from 1971, is a loose arrangement on a grid pattern with reference to modernist, concrete architecture, but it is enshrouded in such a loose haze the abstract interplay of forms, dancing between lights and darks, never solidifies into the representation of something, well, concrete.
Many — maybe even the majority — of the works in The Abstract Impulse are strong: the show does not suffer from weak links so much as the overall lack of links. There are a few fortunate pairings, but there seems to be no overarching thread or idea. No historical content or development: Some museums overdo things with their educational materials. That is not the case here. The only guideposts in this exhibition are four quotes from artists: van Gogh, Gauguin, O’Keeffe and Motherwell. And the layout does not guide the viewer, even implicitly, along any fruitful trajectory. The museum really needs to invest, both time and money, in coming up with strategies to make this space work. As it is now, an exhibit like this turns into a flea market, a bit of a mess with some treasures to be found for those willing to put in the effort.
The Abstract Impulse, Sears Art Museum, Utah Tech University, St. George, through Nov. 10
All images courtesy the author
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.