Julie Sass – A Brief History of Abstraction - Rønnebæksholm
A brief history of abstraction is an exhibition curated by painter Julie Sass, hosted by Rønnebæksholm, an old manor house now run as an art museum outside the Danish town Næstved. The museum has invited visual artist Julie Sass to give her take on the artistic phenomenon of abstraction. Spanning 60 works by 23 artists from 11 countries and covering a period of nearly one hundred years, Sass frames the elements of abstraction as an artistic phenomenon. This exhibition is both an art history of non representational art while at the same time a survey of Julie Sass’ own personal and artistic interests evident by her own works which are included alongside works by her predecessors and colleges.
There is a striking playfulness at work throughout the seven bright rooms that exhibition spans over. The artworks have been installed in a very dynamic yet organic way with a lot of humorous details and surprises. Some art works are placed very high on the wall, some even on the ceiling and under windows. The dialogue between the artworks as well as the room they occupy seems to be a very important element of the curation. While abstract art is known for being exhibited in white boxes, Julie Sass incorporates the architectural details of the rooms, drawing equivalence between art works and fireplaces and other decorative and functional furnishings. This seems to be the reason one panel in a lithographic triptych is hung slightly higher than the rest. By placing classic works by Man Ray opposite contemporary works by Arturo Herrera, they seem to communicate, making the viewer aware of similarities and differences but in a way which feels suggestive rather than blatant. This is not an artistic treasure hunt where the viewers are told what to think. Instead the detailed and playful curation inspires the viewer to make a variety of associations and cross references that linger and mature for a while after leaving the exhibition.
Sonja Ferlov Mancoba
Even though the exhibition contains sculptures, objects and artist books this is first and foremost about two dimensional works of art: painting, photography, printmaking and collage. Sculptures are presented as formal commentary to the work consisting of images. The powerful bronze sculpture The Mask by Sonja Ferlov Mancoba is an exception to this. It is placed in room number 5, making this room the most dramatic one with strong paintings by Julie Sass. A black and pink composition with separate parts that have been sown together picks up on several similarities in the sculpture from 1977 despite their different media, texture and weight.
In this same openminded and generous spirit Julie Sass has written seven texts, one for each of the rooms sharing her thoughts and reasoning behind and about the works in them. She is always exploring different questions about art and one fundamental question to her is about the origin of things and especially form’s provenance. She imagines that there is some sort of starting point with a force from which everything can emanate or implode. In Michelle Grabner’s work on paper and in Rannva Kunoy’s lithography this force seems to be infused in a pitch black background, buckling out in straight silver lines from the centre towards the edges of the paper.
The power in Erin Lawlors paintings is controlled by a very skilled and experienced painter and colourist. Her paintings seems to be filled up with forms and paint to such a degree, that they might burst out into the exhibition room with great force. The force is in the brushwork and in the movements of the painting brush. In the captivating painting grinch grinches the cat most of the broad strokes are framed by contours, which seem to temporarily freeze the waving movement. It becomes a frozen moment in time with a strong sense of surprise and possibility.
The painting King Dollar by Rannva Kunoy has a three-dimensional, almost holographic quality, suggesting that something is always just coming into being hereby changing the conditions of the media. Despite the fact, that paintings are still images, the new paintings by Kunoy require that the viewer is moving around the piece, because the appearance of the painting changes according to the angle you are looking at the painting from.
Room number two is dedicated to Sass’ fascination with the shifting of shapes and changes in form. Hansina Iversens lithography features a dark prominent form that drifts from above downwards to the right. This is due to our own inclination to read physical experiences into artworks. The spontaneous appearance is in fact planned and executed by an experienced artist with a specialised sense of pictorial space. In the same room as the work of Hansina Iversen is James Hyde’s composition of nylon ribbons in different colours. Titled Transit it almost looks like an abstract painting in the colourfield painters’ tradition while the material and structure nods towards an approach more associated with minimalism. Hyde is challenging painting as a media, rethinking it both in content and material. Outside in the park there is a big billboard poster which at first glance seems to be a beautiful abstract picture in brilliant colours. If you go outside to study the work, you discover that it in reality is a digital print of rather poor quality which the artist has used as starting point in this humorous piece.
The third room is assigned conceptual art strategies with Yoko Ono’s great Painting in Three Stanzas. It is astounding that this piece about representation was completed already in 1964 despite its contemporary outlook.
In room seven, we revisit Sass’ interest in dialogue. Her artist book VOLUME RHYTHM MATTERdialogues consists of conversations between Sass and artists Arturo Herrera, Erin Lawlor, Ann Pibal and Steel Stillman as well as her own artwork. Each artist posed questions about abstraction that - while addressed specifically to her work, also bring about concerns or their own. The dialogues vary widely and Sass’ responses are in written form as well as visual, in the form of heliographs and lithographs made with Jan Anderson at Steinprent. The cooperation between Sass and The Faroe Island’s Graphic Workshop Steinprent started five years ago and through her work there Sass has exhibited with Faroese artists, Rannva Kunoy and Hansina Iversen, whose works, are also represented at this exhibition. In Steinprent Julie Sass has created several graphic works and two books, both of which are exhibited at A Brief History of Abstraction.
The artist and curator, Julie Sass strongly believes that art is not made in solitude by artists working independently of each other, but is always the result of understandings and innovations made by generations of artists. In each room Julie Sass focuses on different aspects of abstract art and in room four, artists who have had a significant impact on the curator’s own practice are featured. Here we see paintings and drawings by Shirley Jaffe and variations of and tributes to Jaffe by Julie Sass. The small golden painting by Ann Pibal has an almost magnetic impact on this viewer. Pibal uses acrylic paint on aluminium in her geometric compositions. The small painting is entitled RBWC 3.2, which could be an abbreviation referring to something specific about the piece without informing us what it is, but it seems to be part of a series. The painting is rectangular in form with a horizontal lining high and low on the surface as well as vertical lines to the left indicating a architectural space. There is also a square figure to the right that contains concentric squares in bright rainbow colours. While the title, material and geometry suggests a strict minimalistic, scientific approach, the shimmering colours and the serenity in the forms also convey a delicious sense of beauty. The dimensions and the golden colour make me think about old religious paintings by Giotto or maybe a voluptuous Baroque paintings with pictures within pictures.
In all of Julie Sass’ works there is an awareness of the play between a sensual and an analytical approach, focusing on the interrelations between forms on the surface both in individual pieces and across her wider body of work. Her own pieces seems to be built rather than painted and the process appears important in several ways. It’s as if the artist wants the viewer to notice the process and with this exhibition she invites us into her own artistic machine room. In the last room she juxtaposes heliography and lithography with her new works on canvas showing the public the development of ideas in her work. This is courageous in more ways than one. By sharing her own strategies and in defining a personal history of abstract art, Julie Sass is taking risks.
In short A Brief History of Abstraction is about breaking boundaries and loosening up hierarchic structures in the history of abstract art. I believe that the main reason Julie Sass is so successful with this project lies in her lines of communication, her open mindedness and intuition displayed, and of course the high quality of art works included in the exhibition by Alain Biltereyst, Ann Pibal, Arturo Herrera, Dan Walsh, Ebbe Stub Wittrup, Erin Lawlor, Eva Steen Christensen, Hansina Iversen, Henri Michaux, James Hyde, Maria Buras, Man Ray, Marie Søndergaard Lolk, Michelle Grabner, Moira Dryer, Noël Dolla, Rachel Beach, Rannva Kunoy, Shirley Jaffe, Shirley Goldfarb, Sonja Ferlov Mancoba, Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen, Yoko Ono.