Abstract Art of the 1940s at Palmer Museum of Art

A captivating new exhibition premiering at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State considers how some of the most provocative midcentury artists made the leap from figuration to abstraction. “A Way Through: Abstract Art of the 1940s” features major works by Suzy Frelinghuysen, Arshile Gorky, Paul Keene, Lee Krasner, Alice Trumbull Mason, Henry McCarter, George L. K. Morris, Irene Rice Pereira, Judith Rothschild, Charles Green Shaw, Esphyr Slobodkina, Hedda Sterne and John von Wicht.

Many of these artists – including a significant number of women, whose contributions have too often been overlooked – were pivotal founders and early members of the American Abstract Artists group. The exhibition will be on view at Penn State, the sole venue, from January 15 through May 15, 2022.

“As part of the Palmer’s year-long 50th anniversary celebration, this compelling exhibition brings together major loans from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and places them alongside works from the Museum’s collection,” Palmer Museum of Art director Erin M. Coe said. “It provides us with unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the development of abstract art in the United States and how our programmatic partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made possible by the Art Bridges Initiative, can grow in new directions for the future, especially as we look to our new Museum facility.”  

Abstract art proliferated in the United States during the 1940s and was engulfed by economic chaos, world war, the Holocaust and nuclear destruction. Midcentury American artists experimented with a broad range of abstraction and new modes of visual expression as a means of processing the societal upheaval of the era.

The title of the exhibition derives in part from the closing lines of Clement Greenberg’s 1940 essay Towards a Newer Laocoön, in which the influential critic acknowledged and promoted the challenge of abstract art, arguing for the necessity of “fighting our way through it.”   

A precursor to the New York School and Abstract Expressionism, the American Abstract Artists group was founded in New York in 1936. The cohort was united in its belief in the importance of non-figural compositions and in the autonomy of the work of art. It opened its first annual exhibition in 1937.

“This exhibition provides a rare glimpse into the early origins of abstract art in the face of intense cultural resistance during a particularly tumultuous and creative decade,” curator Adam M. Thomas said.

A Way Through is one in a series of American art exhibitions created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the Art Bridges Initiative.

George L. K. Morris (American, 1905–1975), Composition, 1940, oil on canvas, 30 3/16 x 23 1/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1946, 1946-70-15
George L. K. Morris (American, 1905–1975), Composition, 1940, oil on canvas, 30 3/16 x 23 1/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1946, 1946-70-15

Art Bridges Initiative

The Art Bridges Initiative is committed to supporting multi-year exhibition partnerships among Museums nationwide. The initiative builds on Art Bridges’ mission to expand access to American art across the United States and to empower Museums to broaden traditional definitions of American art. For more information, visit artbridgesfoundation.org.

50th Anniversary Programs

In observance of its 50th anniversary, the Palmer Museum is hosting a multitude of vibrant programs and events related to the collection and 2022 exhibitions designed to inspire and bring together the Penn State and regional communities. From gallery activities, performances and workshops to talks, tours and virtual programs, the Palmer’s anniversary offerings will seek to make connections and foster conversations.

During the spring, the Palmer invites community members to reflect on their memories and experiences at the Museum by recording a short video of their “Palmer stories,” which will be shared with the community during the remainder of the year. Additional events held throughout the year will include a student-centered birthday bash during Art After Hours, a celebratory gala organized by the Friends of the Palmer on May 21, and a community-wide paint out at the Arboretum on June 25. Detailed information will be forthcoming on the Museum’s website: palmermuseum.psu.edu.

The Palmer Museum of Art

The Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State is the largest art museum collection between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and the most significant academic art museum in the state of Pennsylvania. A key element of Penn State’s land-grant mission of teaching, research and public service, the Museum is a vital and accessible cultural resource for Penn State’s students, faculty and scholars, as well as for all visitors to and from the entire central Pennsylvania region.

Through its world-class objects, programs and outreach, the Museum is a welcoming, inclusive and vibrant forum for authentic arts experiences and cultivates meaningful dialogue about today’s most potent ideas and pressing concerns.

An expansive 21st-century teaching museum, the Palmer Museum of Art is a beacon for advancing the arts and humanities on Penn State’s University Park campus and throughout its diverse communities. The Museum is dedicated to catalyzing groundbreaking research, scholarship, and publications and providing impactful, object-based learning for Penn State and K-12 students. The Museum’s rewarding and thought-provoking exhibitions and programs promote visitor participation, belonging, and discovery.

No Comments Yet.