Palmer Museum of Art Exhibition Examines Evolution of Abstraction in the 1940s

  • January 23, 2022 14:57

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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
Lee Krasner (American, 1908–1984), Composition, 1949, oil on canvas, 38 1/16 x 27 13/16 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of the Aaron E. Norman Fund, Inc., 1959, 1959-31-1 © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A captivating new exhibition 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 is organized by the Palmer Museum of Art and curated by Adam M. Thomas, curator of American art at the Palmer. It is now on view at Penn State, the sole venue, through May 15, 2022.

 A Way Through: Abstract Art of the 1940s is the most comprehensive look at mid-century abstraction in the Museum’s history,” said Palmer Museum of Art director Erin M. Coe. “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. 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,” said curator Adam M. Thomas.

Irene Rice Pereira (American, 1902–1971), Untitled (Two Triangles), c. 1940, oil and pigmented varnish on canvas, 36 x 30 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with the J. Stogdell Stokes Fund (2011), 2011-10-1 © Estate of Irene Rice Pereira

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.

Tags: american art

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