Into the Canvas: Post-Painterly Abstraction in Cleveland


Abstract painting in the late 1950s and 1960s developed beyond the realm of the action painters’ exploration of expressing raw internal emotions. A number of American artists, including Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Lewis, began allowing diluted paint soak into unprimed canvases, removing the physical gestures of painting and creating the flattest paint surface possible. Art critic Clement Greenberg called these works “Post-Painterly Abstraction.” Greenberg advocated passionately for these new developments in art as reaching the most pure result of Modernism in painting. He argued that flatness became “the only condition painting shared with no other art, and so Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness…” By allowing the pigments to stain the canvas, the artists were rejecting the three-dimensional, tactile application of paint, therefore stressing the flatness of the picture plane.


In Cleveland, these new developments in art were being explored by a number of artists. Carl Krabill began painting stained dot compositions in the early 1960s when he was a graduate student at Oberlin College. Layering color on color gives a sense of shifting light. The paintings recall Claude Monet or Larry Poons, artists that his mentor Ellen Johnson taught about in her art history courses at the college. Johnson, an important influence in promoting contemporary art, exhibited the works of artists such as Poons and Bruce Nauman before they became widely know. This penchant for seeking out younger artists led her to support Krabill with the help of a Learned Society Grant.


Using the rectangle and oversized scale as a guide, Barbara Smukler created lyrical, striped bands of color on a grid system. In a statement she wrote, “I have had a love affair with stripes and lines… They are marvelous units to work with.” Rectangular areas define the freely drawn lines that emphasize the stretchers on which the canvas is wrapped, an idea that Greenberg had advanced as acknowledging the limitations of the support. By doing so, Smukler had reaffirmed that flatness was vital to the process. Her slowly built-up transparent washes create marks that overlap, abd are both seen and barely seen. The scale of the work becomes imposing on the viewer both visually and physically. They require an interaction and movement by the viewer to pick up on the rhythmical organization.


William Ward’s stained landscape paintings show the influence of Frankenthaler, and the impact that the Mexican landscape had on his sense of color. Many of the titles for these stained paintings are derived from locations in Mexico where Ward, and his wife, Evelyn Svec Ward, repeatedly traveled, beginning with their honeymoon to Oaxaca Valley in 1952. Ward saturated paper or canvas with water, requiring him to work quickly as he created momentary visual impressions of the landscape. Ward worked simultaneously in a bolder striped style he called his Liquid-Stripe series. These calligraphic marks layer stripes of color in a curvilinear technique. The effect is one of total pigment saturation of the canvas with an all-over composition, and shows the influence of Japanese calligraphy. A teacher of the subject, Ward stated that “Calligraphy builds discipline in a person. If you make a mistake, you start all over.” That attention to detail and sense of discipline is visible in his finely executed abstractions.


Each of these artists embraced new techniques and styles that both mirrored and advanced ideas of abstract art in the early 1960s and they continued to push these artistic developments well into the 1970s and beyond. Shifting focus away from the emotive gestural paint stroke of Abstract Expressionism gave these artists the ability to focus on concept and color. The stained paintings created by Krabill, Smuckler, and Ward present a unique look at how artists of our region responded to national artistic movements.


Into the Canvas opens January 15th and runs through March 25, 2016.



Into the Canvas: Post-Painterly Abstraction in Cleveland

January 15˗March 25, 2016

Reception 5 to 9 PM Friday, January 15


1305 West 80th St., Suite 016
Cleveland, OH 44102