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The hand of the artist in Abstract painting 1950-1990 is addressed in Princeton
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968. Oil on paper laid down on canvas. Collection of Preston H. Haskell, Class of 1960. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / photo Douglas J. Eng.

PRINCETON, NJ.- A remarkable gathering of paintings by some of the most important artists of the postwar era will provide a window into a moment of extraordinary creative ferment, when the very nature of abstract painting was being hotly contested. Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell spans the years 1950 to 1990, an era whose commitment to artistic experimentation is rivaled only by the first decades of the 20th century, when abstraction was invented.

Organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, Rothko to Richter features 27 paintings by 23 pioneering American, European, and Canadian artists, including Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Jean Dubuffet, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko, and Frank Stella.

Curated by Kelly Baum, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, the exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue that features contributions by Baum, Hal Foster, and Susan Stewart along with insightful essays on each artist. Rothko to Richter will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from May 24 through Oct. 5, 2014, and will travel to The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida, in January 2015.

Associated with movements as diverse as Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Minimalism, Op art, and Postmodernism, the artists featured in Rothko to Richter were at the forefront of debates about the changing priorities and imperatives of painting after World War II, each seeking to redefine abstraction for new social and cultural milieus. For them, the debate around abstract painting largely concerned process and technique, specifically the artistic gesture and mark-making.

All of the paintings in the exhibition are on loan from the collection of Preston H. Haskell III, Princeton class of 1960, a longstanding Museum benefactor and former chair of its Advisory Council. Some of the works are still held by Preston and his wife Joan, and others are held by the Haskell Company. The works were assembled both for personal pleasure and in order to stimulate and energize the human mind and spirit by building one of the nation’s most arresting, if largely unheralded, corporate collections. From the acquisition of the first work—a painting by Jacksonville, Florida, artist John McIver—the collection has grown alongside the company that Preston founded in 1965, a firm that has become the nation’s leading integrated design-build company.

“Rothko to Richter provides an important reassessment of the striking developments in abstract art that took place over a particularly significant 40 years and reaffirms abstraction’s vibrancy and diversity as perhaps the 20th-century’s defining painterly idiom,” said Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward. “We are privileged to showcase work from the extraordinary collection assembled by Preston and Joan Haskell through this exhibition and publication, and in doing so, we are asking our audiences to consider abstract painting in a new light.”

Rothko to Richter explores how changes in process and technique, specifically in mark-making, signal broader changes to abstract painting. Bookended artistically and conceptually by two paintings, Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1968) and Gerhard Richter’s Abstract Painting (613-3) (1986), the exhibition charts the alternating appeal of gesture, authenticity, and self-expression, on the one hand, and irony, appropriation, self-effacement, on the other. Additional highlights include Helen Frankenthaler’s Belfry and February Turn (both 1979), which mimic the look and feel of Abstract Expressionism yet in truth represent a rupture with that tradition through the use of a staining technique that seemingly minimizes the artist’s role in the process; Frank Stella’s Double Scramble (1978), whose nested squares, color contrasts, and pulsing optical effects bridge the artist’s early minimalism and later illusionism; and Robert Rauschenberg’s Golden Chalice (1989) which, insofar as it marries abstraction and representation and juxtaposes gestural brushwork and photographic media, affords a crucial link to late 20th-century abstraction.

As curator Kelly Baum has stated, “In Rothko to Richter, paintings that do not often share space in a museum confront one another on nearby walls. Given their stylistic, thematic, and procedural disparities, painters like Rothko, Stella, and Goldstein make for a very unlikely triumvirate, as do Frankenthaler, Anuszkiewicz, and Richter, but these sorts of unconventional juxtapositions offer fresh perspectives on art, revealing previously concealed affinities or, alternately, exacerbating strong differences of opinion about the proper ambitions for painting. Seeing differently allows us to think, and ultimately to know, differently.”

As disparate as the artistic approaches appear to be in Rothko to Richter, what united the painters throughout the period was a commitment to process, as artists explored a range of brushwork techniques, from audaciously gestural ribbons of built-up paint to vibrating fields and soft washes of color to hard-edged geometries. The results alternately emphasized or suppressed traces of the artist’s hand and, as Museum director James Steward notes, “afford the viewer a remarkable opportunity to simply revel in the sheer beauty and freedom of abstract painting.”

Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell has been made possible by generous support from Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965; the Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Contemporary Art Fund; the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; and the Judith and Anthony B. Evnin, Class of 1962, Exhibitions Fund, and an anonymous donor. Additional support has been provided by the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum.

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