As a result of a transformative gift of nearly fifty paintings by the artist Hans Hofmann in the 1960s, Abstract Expressionism and its various offshoots (Color Field, action painting, gestural abstraction) have become a foundational strength of BAMPFA’s collection. Abstract Expressionism was both an international style and a hallmark of artmaking in the Bay Area in the mid-twentieth century, and many of the artists included in this exhibition taught at UC Berkeley, including Hofmann, Hassel Smith, and Esteban Vicente.
The Abstract Expressionism movement celebrated gestural abstraction, an approach to painting that makes the process visible, through, for example, brushstrokes, drips, splashes, pours, scratches, scrapes, and other inventive ways to make a mark on canvas or other surfaces. Critically developed in Europe and the United States in the wake of World War II, this approach to painting was deeply existential, often associated with personal expression, spirituality, intuition, and the physical trace of human presence. Many of the early Abstract Expressionists were influenced by Buddhist philosophies and East Asian calligraphy.
With artworks from the 1950s to the present—some shown for the first time, others for the first time in decades—this exhibition features key international figures from the Bay Area, New York, and Germany, alongside artists of a younger generation from New York, Beijing, Berkeley, Oakland, and elsewhere, who have continued to explore artistic possibilities within or in dialogue with gestural abstraction, expanding the genre with new materials, subjects, and identities: women artists, BIPOC artists, and artists with disabilities.
Through its exhibitions and acquisitions, BAMPFA will continue to explore, question, and revisit the past, present, and future lineage of Abstract Expressionism, using a decidedly contemporary perspective that challenges the understanding of Abstract Expressionism as an art historical narrative centered on white men in North America and Europe. What new meanings emerge if we acknowledge its multicultural roots and consider gestural abstraction through an intergenerational perspective? How do the works in this exhibition resonate with those in the concurrent exhibition Spiritual Mountain: The Art of Wesley Tongson, with its innovative ink splash drawings rooted in traditional Chinese painting?
The artists featured in this exhibition include Elise Asher, Katy Cowan, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Oliver Jackson, Rashid Johnson, Dan Miller and Trisha Donnelly, Joan Mitchell, Kenjilo Nanao, Jackson Pollock, Gerhard Richter, Hassel Smith, Esteban Vicente, and Wu Jian-An.