This exhibition on the campus of Princeton University shows a selection of 27 works from the private collection of one of its illustrious graduates. After civil engineering studies at Princeton, and graduate work at both Harvard Business School and MIT, Preston Haskell went on to found a very successful engineering and design firm based in Jacksonville, Florida. With the proceeds of this success, he and his wife Joan have enjoyed the many opportunities that come from building a collection of contemporary art. It features many of the giants in the field of abstract painting spanning the years of 1950 to 1990. Working with scholar Kelly Baum, Preston has chosen works that suit his fancy and has purchased them mostly at auction. In a brief interview at the opening of the show, he noted that he is attracted to work that shows spontaneous energetic exuberance. He stated that the artists in his stable engaged their hearts and minds – emotions and intellects. [i]
The exhibition catalog contains essays by Kelly Baum, senior curator for modern art at Princeton as well as Hal Foster, the modern art specialist on the Princeton Art History faculty. Their remarks reflect the two different perspectives that each has on the collection: the one who helped put it together and the other who has a professional responsibility to assess its value and contribution to the trajectory of modern painting in the world of scholarship. Kelly chose to focus her comments on three items: the Mark, the Maker and the Method. She noted that marks are the constituent feature, the backbone of painting. [ii] Each mark on the canvas becomes a kind of painterly handwriting that gives us clues as to the distinct will, personality and psychological state of the artist. These gestures she feels are a supplement to speech, a quiet overture and silent form of visual poetry. Her idea is that as we also look at the methods of painting used by this group- staining raw canvas, applying heavy impasto paint with palette knives or calibrating exact edges with masking tape, we begin to see how each personality functions in this field of abstract art. Frank Stella, a Princeton graduate of the class of 1958, has the largest number of works in the Haskell Collection. While he majored in English during college, his highly successful career in painting has produced a body of work that has expanded the way canvas is used and constructed in many forms. Perhaps it is this unusual engineering that has attracted Preston whose training in the physics of construction design were such a part of his own success.
Frank Stella, Steller’s Albatross, 1977
Noted Scholar Hal Foster reaches beyond Kelly’s observations to place the work of abstract expression in the critical cannon of modernism noting that the picture plane for these artists is an arena for action and a gestural performance in many ways.[iii] He proposes that the paintings are full of color but devoid of imagery or recognizable iconography. They become a “Zen like nullity of their own.”[iv] Relieved of the burden of landscape, portrait or history painting by the invention of photography about 1840, the canvas became a zone for artistic self- expression. The artist like a dancer or poet could create free form without the pressure of recording another moment or image in time. Perhaps it is in this free space, that we as viewers can experience a quiet pause as we stand before these works, noting the marks and brush strokes, and the way gravity itself carries the paint on the canvas.
In the specific Haskell work of Mark Rothko painted in 1968 toward the end of his life, we see the somber use of color in two rectangular forms on the canvas. The quiet of the tones and his subtle but spiritual use of the paint draws us into this work for a closer look. We can see how he scraped oil off the canvas to reveal the ground layer underneath. It is both sublime and subtle, thoughtful and engaging. This work is named, Untitled, as Rothko leaves us to create our own metaphor for this viewing experience.
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968.
In comparison, the work of Gerhard Richter brings us the European point of view in the field of abstract expression as he was trained in both the art academies of Dresden and Dusseldorf. We know that as this work was drying he pulled a squeegee across the canvas in a dramatic gesture that literally pulls the paint from left to right. In the boldness of the stroke and its brilliant color, we see the best of Richter as he gives us both warm and cool tones of oil paint. Simply named Abstract Painting 1986, it leaves us, as with Rothko, free to have a walk about the canvas and create our own experience. As Preston Haskell noted, you can feel the exuberance and emotion of both Rothko and Richter in tandem.
Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting, 1986
It is an irony that today’s undergraduates at Princeton still cannot major in fine arts as an academic discipline as you can in many other Ivy League schools. This decision by the faculty to keep the rigors of learning to noted fields of scholarship and science is perhaps a pity. Maybe the next generation will embrace a new paradigm after exposure to collections such as this one. That is the beauty of the evolution of a liberal arts education in America today.
Rothko to Richter – May 24 to October 5 2014
Sharon Lorenzo, June, 2014