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Abstraction at the Burchfield-Penney

Exhibition features works from the museum's collection

Posted: August 25, 2005
The Burchfield-Penney Art Center is proud to present Abstraction, an exhibition that illustrates developments in twentieth-century abstraction by many of Western New York's most accomplished artists. The exhibition will be on view from August 27 - November 20, 2005.

Participating in the rich international history of this aesthetic movement, our region’s artists have pursued the full gamut of conceptual and technical perspectives. Their work parallels the progress made when art became more psychologically symbolic to express the radical historical and technological changes occurring in the world. This exhibition provides an attractive counterpoint to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s presentation of leading, international, contemporary work in Extreme Abstraction.

While the foundations for abstract art developed in Europe during the nineteenth century with the atmospheric works of the Impressionists, the twentieth century saw the most fundamental changes. At the turn of the century, Post-Impressionists, such as Paul Cezanne, altered the pictorial concept of space, flattening it, and dispensing with Renaissance concepts of perspective. Shortly afterwards, Cubists, such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, broke down rational space further, presenting multiple viewpoints of a subject in two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional space. Still, these artists were always referring to recognizable subject matter. Even more forward thinking, Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, painted the first non-objective compositions, based on theory, music or spirituality. The great American contribution was Abstract Expressionism, beginning about 1943 as a way to convey unconscious human emotions. Then the psychological and gestural works of Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, three great American artists who changed the course of painting internationally, ushered in followers known as "second generation Abstract Expressionists." In later decades, Minimalists tried to reduce art to its bare essentials, proclaiming that their work had no subject—only the materials from which it was made.

Paintings, sculpture, and works on paper from the Burchfield-Penney Art Center’s collection illustrate decades of abstraction by artists associated with Buffalo and Western New York State. The exhibition begins with two major directions in abstraction: organic and geometric. Organic abstraction derives from forms found in nature, from plants and animals in the landscape, as well as the human body. Curvilinear form, dimensionality, mass, texture, and colors from a muted palette often characterize these works. Diametrically opposed to organic abstraction, geometric abstraction comes from the analytical and mechanistic realms. Hard lines, flat areas of space, and bright, unnatural colors typically characterize these works. A highly evolved level of design dominates the compositions. Geometric abstraction is often viewed as art for art's sake.

Highlights of works from the 1950s through the mid-1970s include Magda Cordell McHale's huge, visceral figurative canvas, a large oil by Harriet Greif that references the horizontal structures of landscape, prints by Robert Squeri that celebrate the purity of form, and a vigorously painted canvas by Eugene Vass, as well as three of his totemic wooden sculptures. Walter A. Prochownik, who exemplifies a lifelong devotion to abstraction and meticulous craftsmanship, is represented with early work that attempts to bridge non-objective and representational subjects, and later work that reflects environmental concerns.

Artworks created in the 1980s and 1990s reflect for the most part a greater flamboyance that paralleled changes in world events, the influence of popular culture, self-reflective and personalized iconography, and greater experimentation with non-traditional materials. The work reflects its time, when artists turned from highly intellectualized minimalism—which was comprehended by a small, but informed audience—toward work that seeks to communicate ideas about life’s experiences. This is not to say that art of this period isn’t conceptually rich, as some of it references twentieth-century art and cleverly reworks ideas through the Post-Modern perspective, fully cognizant of its debt paid to history.

Among the artists represented in this section is Robert Flock, whose bold, sweeping brushwork in his large canvas, Work, can be compared to his frenetic drawing composed of oil stick, graphite and pastel. Charles Clough capitalizes on a primal art-making process—finger-painting—as well as collage, in his freeform, figurative work that rejects the traditional squares and rectangles of typical canvases. Alan Van Every’s welded sculpture of spare parts is humorously covered in brilliantly hued enamel and oil paints. Yoonsook Ryang’s monotypes reflect an imaginary space in one-of-a-kind prints. Sheldon Berlyn’s Homage to Caravaggio shrewdly pays tribute to the 17th-century painter in a dramatic display of color, light, and movement without being literal.

The Burchfield-Penney Art Center collection has been built through the generosity of many of the artists who donated their own works and art by their colleagues. Patrons who value the achievements of regional artists and donated art to the collection featured in this exhibition include Steven and Cecile Biltekoff, Mr. and Mrs. Armand J. Castellani, Mr. and Mrs. Philip C. Elliott, Dr. Charles Rand Penney, Mrs. J. Benjamin Townsend, and the Family of Preston L. Wright. Several works were purchased with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, M&T Bank, members of the Collectors’ Club, and other friends of the museum.

As Head of Collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, Nancy Weekly selected the artworks and wrote label texts to provide an interesting, historic perspective on artworks and biographical information about artists.

About the Burchfield-Penney Art Center

The Burchfield-Penney Art Center is a museum dedicated to the art and vision of Charles E. Burchfield and distinguished artists of Buffalo Niagara and Western New York State. Through its affiliation with Buffalo State College, the museum encourages learning and celebrates our richly creative and diverse community. For more information, call (716) 878-6011 or visit

The Burchfield-Penney Art Center is accredited by the American Association of Museums and is supported in part with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts. Additional operating support is provided by the Elizabeth Elser Doolittle Trust, the James Carey Evans Endowment, the Mary A. H. Rumsey Foundation and the Burchfield-Penney's members and friends.
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