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Rhapsody In Blue... and Red and Yellow

Phyllis Wiener, one of the first female painters in Minnesota's abstract art movement
Sean Smuda

The paint in Bruce Anderson's Lover's Embrace is so thick that it's probably still drying, even though the Mankato-born artist completed it more than 15 years ago. Layers of sea green and orange coalesce on top of each other, protruding from the center of the eleven-by-six-foot canvas like chunks of papier-mâché. In the top left-hand corner, a glob of dark-blue paint--maybe four tubes' worth--creates a bubbling mass that resembles a decayed human organ.

Colors and swirls intertwine with one another, but nothing about Anderson's work conjures mental images of the post-coital cuddle suggested in the title. Instead, paint is splattered on the edge of the canvas like remnants from the artist's emotional vomit. Thick coats of green, white, and orange look like guts smeared all over its center. The sloppy, beautiful mess looks like it has been ulcerating inside Anderson for years, only to finally mushroom out of his fingertips. You can almost see him scraping on the paint with a palette knife and trowel, feeling more pissed off with each giant stroke of his heavy arm.

Like the 31 other pieces featured in the Minnesota Museum of American Art's "Abstract Painting: Selected Works 1930 to the Present," Lover's Embrace highlights the emotional intensity created by a quiet group of independent artists. Minnesota's first abstract painters were connected through artist Cameron Booth, a onetime landscape artist who taught at the St. Paul School of Art from 1929 to 1942 and joined the University of Minnesota in 1948. But many of those who met through Booth weren't openly engaged in any pedantic dialogue about what the movement meant.

"It was a complex village with streets unnamed and unmarked," says Aribert Munzner, who moved to Minnesota from Germany in 1955 and taught painting at the Minneapolis School of Art (now MCAD) from 1955 to 1993. He talks about the nature of art and existence in long thought spirals that loop back and repeat themselves, much like the themes in the paintings themselves. But though Munzner speaks passionately, he's also careful with his words, making sure to define terms like "scene" and "dialogue" with quotation marks, even when he's talking a mile a minute.

During the 1950s, he says, the Twin Cities' art community was divided like two countries on different sides of the river. "People were working. They didn't try to classify themselves. Nobody talked about it. It was as it was everywhere in the world, a human search for their own observations."

In New York, the abstract movement was a "scene," propelled by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Willem De Kooning; jazz clubs; and acclaimed art critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg, a curmudgeonly elitist to say the least, nevertheless brought abstract art to the forefront by exploring it as process, the result of sensations and impulses instead of a reliance on images. He started out at The Nation, but later became a devout anticommunist, which affected how he viewed the images. His later conceit was that the free-form gestural paintings depicted the individual freedom of expression represented by democracy and capitalism.

Though the Minnesota movement drew from the New York scene, its regionalism mostly protected it from being misappropriated as a jingoistic expression during the McCarthy era. And when some artists moved from New York or other parts of the world to Minnesota, they brought new reflections on local life with them. They were influenced more by the Minnesota experience and abstract art's original teachings about technique than the celebratory Americanism that later put New York at the center of the movement.

Take, for instance, Cameron Booth's Summer Solstice. Here, the rich reds jump off the canvas and the yellow horizontal lines recede into the painting. Booth uses space and color--dark abstract shapes in the painting's center and light-colored linear brush strokes that extend across the entire work--to give the painting depth and the appearance of a foreground. While in Europe in the 1920s, Booth was a student of German-born abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann, who also taught Lee Krasner, among other New York artists. One of the most important artists of the movement, Hofmann used paint drips way before Pollock, and stressed the importance of using dramatic colors--reds, pinks, yellows--to evoke a vivid experience. His influence is deeply evident in Summer Solstice, which renders nature in the abstract and uses rich colors and interlocking nonrepresentational images to convey the emotional symbiotic relationship between nature and man.

Phyllis Wiener was a student of Booth's in the 1950s, during the heyday of abstract expressionism. Now, at 83, Wiener says she's still "on the space thing." In her 1986 painting Afternoon Map, from a series titled "Ghost Maps," the harsh lines, angular shapes, and layered patterns create what looks like an aerial view of a neon city. Vertical rectangles give off a lavender glow as they weave into fuchsia highlights that extend beyond the painting's frame. Wiener says she was inspired by the time she spent in New York's Lower East Side, where the history of the neighborhood's onetime inhabitants lingered in the city streets like a ghost story. "It's based on certain forms and suggestions of cities and lights," she says.

During the '50s, Wiener was one of the few exhibiting woman artists in Minnesota. (Four of the 23 artists in "Abstract Painting: Selected Works" are female.) "There was a lot of chauvinism," she says. "I remember one time someone said, 'There are few women who ever make it.' And my friend said to him, 'Well! You know, there are few men who ever make it, too!'"

Wiener was one of the founding members of Women's Artist Registry of Minnesota (WARM), and the only woman who exhibited her work at Kilbride-Bradley Gallery in Minneapolis. Despite the rampant sexism of the 1950s, she still received one of the top prizes at the Walker Biennial during that decade. "One of the professors at the university could not get over it," she says. "He just really could not understand that."

The fact that Wiener's work is currently being shown at the Minnesota Museum of Modern Art makes sense, since the building was the St. Paul College of Art, a home to abstract painters. But the Minneapolis School of Art had an impact on the art form as well. One of the most exquisite paintings in the MMMA exhibit is 1961's Red Rock Canyon by Elof Wedin, who studied at the Minneapolis school from 1922 to 1924. Wedin was a pipe coverer throughout his life in Minnesota and died in 1983 from complications due to asbestos exposure. On his canvas, the blues complement the oranges and pinks, creating what looks like an electric, fractured landscape. Painted with a palette knife, the colored segments range in thickness and size, almost like glass shards breaking apart in midair.

Aribert Munzner uses fractured landscapes of a different kind for his paintings. All titled Genesis, the canvases re-create life at its origin--in microscopic cells, or in an expanding cosmos, depending on how you look at them. Colorful explosions erupt from frenetically painted squiggles, with each cell or galaxy containing thousands of specks of energy. The gorgeous images are awe-inspiring and somewhat depressing at the same time: We are simply science and matter, they seem to suggest, but we are still infinite and divine.

Oddly enough, the only uninteresting painting in the exhibit is by one of the area's most successful multimedia artists, Steven Sorman. In 1979's In Where, blue, yellow, and brown colors are painted on a drapery sheer. In some areas the paint is thin and sparse, rendering it a sullied drop cloth.

Countering Sorman's dullness, however, are works such as Pure River, a three-paneled Rothko-like meditative abstraction of the Mississippi River by St. Paul native Catherine L. Johnson. Created in 1999, each piece is cobalt blue and layered with a metallic silver in the middle, which makes the colors pop off the orange walls of the museum. And then there's Untitled (1970) by James Kielkopf, another St. Paulite, which creates flashes of light when viewed from its center. Each section of the nine-by-seven-foot painting is made up of hundreds of tiny brush strokes and subtle gradations of gray, white, and black. The combination of these elements creates a visual vibration, like staring into the center of halogen-tube lights.

Despite the fact that abstraction was known for its flatness, many pieces in the exhibit create an illusion of space. Next to Kielkopf's work is a black-and-white painting by Clarence Morgan, the chair at the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota. It's filled with puffy shapes that look like Rorschach inkblots. Tiny pencil strokes in the painting's background cause the blots to appear as though they're slowly floating across the foreground, like magnified slothful microorganisms. Completed in 2004, it's one of the newest paintings in the group and its visual effect is mesmerizing.

"The paintings reflect an energy frequency--a harmonic of what is going on in the human condition," Munzner explains. For the viewer, it's impossible not to empathize with the artists when looking at the pure emotion they've spilled onto their canvases. And while the paintings may not reflect a tangible energy frequency, in the end, that empathy is as close to a connection as we'll ever get.


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