The Shape of Freedom: International Abstraction After 1945

  • May 17, 2022 12:39

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Jackson Pollock, Composition No. 16, 1948. Oil on canvas 56,5 × 39,5 cm. Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden © Pollock-Krasner Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022
Sam Francis, My Shell Angel, 1986. Acrylic on Canvas. 308,61 x 428,62 cm. Hasso Plattner Collection © Sam Francis Foundation, California/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022 Image: Lutz Bertram
Janice Biala, Untitled (Still Life with Three Glasses), 1962. Oil and collage on canvas, 162,6 x 145,4 cm. Collection Richard and Karen Duffy, Chicago. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022 Image: McCormick Gallery, Chicago
Judit Reigl, Center of Dominance, 1958. Oil on Canvas. 191 x 181 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d'art moderne / Centre de création industrielle. Donation of the artist, 2011 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022 Image: © bpk / CNAC-MNAM / Georges Meguerditchian

The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. ... To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time. - Adolph Gottlieb, 1947

The Shape of Freedom: International Abstraction after 1945 is a major new traveling exhibition debuting at the Museum Barberini, in Potsdam, Germany, on June 4, 2022.

The exhibition focuses on the two most important currents of abstraction following World War II: Abstract Expressionism in the United States and Art Informel in western Europe. The Shape of Freedom is the first exhibition to explore this transatlantic dialogue in art from the mid-1940s to the end of the Cold War.  

The show comprises around 100 works by over 50 artists including Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, K. O. Götz, Georges Mathieu, Lee Krasner, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Judit Reigl, and Clyfford Still. Works on loan come from over 30 international museums and private collections including the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, the Tate Modern in London, the Museo nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

After its opening run in Potsdam, a version of the exhibition will travel to the Albertina modern in Vienna (opening October 15, 2022) and then the Munchmuseet in Oslo.

Ortrud Westheider, Director of the Museum Barberini, Potsdam, said, “The paintings in the exhibition bear witness to the tremendous longing for artistic freedom that emerged on both sides of the Atlantic after 1945. The Hasso Plattner Collection, with important works by Norman Bluhm, Joan Mitchell, and Sam Francis, served as our point of departure. The concept developed by our curator Daniel Zamani was so convincing that the Albertina modern in Vienna and the Munchmuseet in Oslo agreed to host the exhibition as well. I am delighted to see this European cooperation.” 

Lee Krasner, Bald Eagle, 1955. Oil, paper and canvas collage on linen, 195,6 x 130,8 cm. ASOM Collection © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022
Mark Rothko Untitled, 1958 Acrylic and oil on canvas 142,6 x 157,8 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. © Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022 Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Helen Frankenthaler, Blue Bellows, 1976. Acrylic on Canvas. 292,7 x 238,8 cm. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York © 2022 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022 Photography credit: Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian
Ernst Wilhelm Nay. Oil on canvas, 162,8 x 130,2 cm. Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Genève © Elisabeth Nay-Scheibler, Köln/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022 Image: Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Genève. Photographer: Sandra Pointet

World War II was a turning point in the development of modern painting. The presence of exiled European avant-garde artists in America transformed New York into a center of modernism that rivaled Paris and set new artistic standards. In the mid-1940s, a young generation of artists in both the United States and Europe turned their back on the dominant stylistic directions of the interwar years. Instead of figurative painting or geometric abstraction they embraced a gestural, expressive handling of form, color, and material—a radically experimental approach that transcended traditional conceptions of painting. Artists like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, and Joan Mitchell discovered an intersubjective form of expression in action painting, while the color field painting of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, and Clyfford Still presented viewers with an overwhelming visual experience. 

Concurrently with Abstract Expressionism in the United States, artists in Paris and other European metropolises explored new materials, textures, and modes of composition. This new painterly approach was designated “Informel” due to its “formless,” unbridled aesthetic. Works by Georges Mathieu, Antoni Tàpies, Pierre Soulages, Wols, Jean Fautrier, and Jean Dubuffet marked a break with art historical tradition. 

With artists such as K. O. Götz, Gerhard Hoehme, Bernard Schultze, Winfred Gaul, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, and Fritz Winter, West Germany likewise emerged as a center of European postwar abstraction from the mid-1950s on. As such, it cultivated close contacts with France and the United States. The exhibition documenta II in 1959 celebrated Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism as the manifestation of a new, universal visual language that would strengthen the political alliance of liberal western nations. In West Germany, radical abstraction was hailed as the new standard for avant-garde painting, in contrast to the Socialist Realism of East Germany or the aesthetic principles of the Nazi regime.

Morris Louis, Saf Heh, 1959. Magna on canvas, 248 x 352 cm. ASOM Collection © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

Abstract Expressionism in America and Art Informel in Europe have often been viewed as separate, independent developments—a geographical and cultural distinction that obscures the close connection between the two movements. The Shape of Freedom now highlights the intensity and enduring nature of this transatlantic exchange. 

The exhibition also features works by lesser-known artists such as Jean Degottex, Simon Hantaï, Manolo Millares, Theodoros Stamos, and Jack Tworkov and foregrounds the long-ignored influence of women artists including Mary Abbott, Janice Biala, Natalia Dumitresco, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Judit Reigl, Deborah Remington, Janet Sobel, Hedda Sterne, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a 256-page catalogue with essays by Jeremy Lewison, Gražina Subelytė, and Daniel Zamani (Prestel, 2022, English/German).   


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