Daniella Sanchez, Contributing Photographer

Currently on view at the Yale University Art Gallery is “Midcentury Abstraction: A Closer Look” — an exhibition which groups together the works of a diverse array of artists, capturing the breadth and variety of mid-20th century art.

Through these carefully selected artworks, the exhibition stitches together specific moments within each artist’s career that together tell the complex stories of their processes in breaking through medium, genre and style into abstraction. The exhibition opened on Feb. 25 and is on view through June 21. It is inspired by a donation to the gallery from the Friday Foundation honoring the legacy of the late Seattle collectors Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang, who held an exceptional collection of mid-20th century artworks. The donation consisted of six works on canvas and paper by American artists Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. 

The Langs had a unique manner of collecting the works of art that informed this installation. Rather than casting a wide net, the Langs focused on collecting the works of specific artists. Their collection allows one to see the trajectory these artists traveled through the course of their careers. Curators of the exhibit — Elisabeth Hodermarsky, Keely Orgeman and Gregor Quack GRD ’24 — drew inspiration from the Langs in seeking other works within the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection to strike similar conversations with the paths of other artists.  

According to Quack, “when a major gift comes it always forces you to reexamine what you already have.” 

“The Friday Foundation knew what we had in holdings, so the gift reflects what we didn’t have,” Hodermarsky said. “They knew we did not have an early Kline or Rothko.” 

The curators built a non-linear tapestry of mid-century abstraction by pairing together the development of a diverse array of artists — from across Europe, China, America and Latin-America — through historical overlaps and formal correspondences. Many artists shared similar struggles of fleeing their homes during World War II whilst finding their artistic voice. 

The exhibition begins in a small room with a series of pieces by Kline. The first painting, “Portrait of Nijinsky,” is an early work depicting the famous ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. By juxtaposing this portrait — made with broad, expressive strokes and contrasts of black, white and blood-red paint — with a later work like “Ravenna,” which contains his iconic abstract, gestural style, one visually grasps the connection between where the artist started and where he was able to step into his style. Furthermore, by positioning a study for “Ravenna” next to the complete work, the curators sought to change the usual interpretations of the artist’s work.  

“Through the studies, and by looking closely at how clean the lines are in “Ravenna”, one can see how he is much more careful and deliberate than what people have come to believe of his association with gestural abstraction,” curator Keely Orgeman said.

Both Hodermarsky and Orgeman explained that beginning the exhibition in this way sets the stage for the rest of the comparisons and juxtapositions made throughout the exhibition. 

In the next room, viewers are faced with a wall filled with black voids. There hangs a Rothko painting made in the 1950s, before the artist’s style shifted towards his notable three-tiered color-field paintings. On the adjacent wall, there are two works by Lee Bontecou, who is still active today, that evoke black holes. 

“There is something about pairing these black holes or voids together,” Hodermarsky said. “The void draws the viewer inside.” 

Quack said that one of the best parts about putting these works together in person was seeing how “what talks to what” in the room can be surprising. 

Pieces also evoke dialogue through themes artists considered in their creation. An untitled early Rothko from the 1940s depicts a Greek tragedy with faces represented on the top register that moves into more abstract territory further down. Not only does the work encapsulate the transition into the artist’s abstract career, but one can also see the way Rothko seeks to incite human emotion through drama, and then later through color. 

As Rothko himself once stated, “without monsters and gods, art cannot enact drama,” demonstrating how he continued to think of these myths in his late work. 

The curators also had the opportunity to bring out from storage works by artists who have similar moments of suspension and transition in their careers. 

One painting titled “7-10-63”  by Chinese-French painter Zao Wou-Ki abstractly captures what appears to be a landscape or seascape. 

“The specificity of the title is evocative of this specific moment, a day in time that he chose to capture through abstraction,” Orgeman said. It relates to all the individual moments that build these artists’ paths as they position themselves in the world. 

The exhibition shows how artists move across mediums throughout time. It includes works by Louise Nevelson, who blurs the line between sculpture and two-dimensional art, as well as the in-between stages of artists’ work that holds remnants of what they would become. For instance, Gilliam Bevel’s paintings were followed by his later work focused on suspended color fields, and Jesús Rafael Soto, who invites the viewer to be an active participant in pieces like “Écriture Noire,” but later moves into creating entire rooms in which the viewers can immerse themselves.  

“Thanks to the Friday Foundation gift and through this exhibition we can go beyond seeing these artists as a single, canonical moment in their art, but rather see them as artists thinking and working through a problem throughout various points in their work,” Quack said. 

Quack hopes that this exhibition helps students in the arts see artworks in a museum as not simply a gold-standard, but rather as examples of artists going through the same struggles, successes and failures in the art world. The exhibition explores how these artists were able to position their work in times of war and within their personal lives and reveals what it means to step into being an artist and embrace each step towards mastery.