The Abstract Question, At AAWR: Part II, A Hard Line

A Hard Line, installation view

Presenting two exhibitions on geometric abstraction, the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve draws attention to both the history of and the continued impact that the style has had on our region. While the companion exhibition Tangents (curated by Jenniffer Omaitz) pushes the boundaries of geometric abstractions, A Hard Line takes on a more Formalist approach utilizing works from the AAWR’s collection. Together, the exhibitions make the case for a second “Cleveland School,” one that advances and expands on hard-edged painting and sculpture. Curated by Artists Archives director, Mindy Tousley, she explains she did “deliberately keep to the more rigid standard of what is thought of historically when you use the term geometric abstractions.” Included are works by Ruth Bercaw, Samuel Butnik, and David E. Davis, George Schroeder, Susan Schroeder, and Dan Tranberg. Of the artists, Tousley notes that they “provided some contrast to the way Omaitz stretched the term for some of the artists she chose.” As a pair, the two exhibitions show just how diverse the field of non-objective art can be, and just how rooted the movement is in the Cleveland area. “With the exception of Tranberg,” Tousley continues, “the artists from the collection are by and large a different generation.”

David Davis, Harmonic Grid XXX, 1977

The artists in A Hard Line use color and structure to develop hard-edged abstractions. The use of programmatic methods of seriality in the exhibition is evident in the selections. Sets of guidelines permit the expansion of ideas and shifting patterns that can be seen from one piece to the next. David E. Davis is perhaps the artist who developed the strictest system to create his sculptural works from the Harmonic Grid series. He adhered to a formula of relating rectangles, triangles, and circles manipulated by the grid to create a diverse body of work in which each piece furthered his adherence to exploration of proportions. In Harmonic Grid XXX, Davis shifts the grid into three dimensions, with its parts emphasizing their modular qualities. Each work in Davis’ series is derived from the grid he developed, but he allowed for scale variations that broke strict adherence in order to provide a flexibility for compositional combinations.

George Schroeder, Semblam. Image courtesy of AAWR.

From grids and systems, patterns can arise in individual works, like George Schroeder’s Op paintings. The diagonal linear structures created in works like Semblam set up a step and repeat pattern that, combined with the assigned colors, gives the impression of weaving layers back and forth across the canvas. Other works by George Schroeder on view further this interest in a woven structure, which was perhaps influenced by his wife, textile artist, Susan Schroeder.

Susan Schroeder, Untitled, Courtesy of AAWR

Her tapestries in the show offer vertical compositions of horizontal bands of monochromatic fields. While seemingly non-objective, they are based on her interest in seasons, nature, and time of day – set patterns in the natural world. She wrote in a statement, “Living close to the lake we were treated to all kinds of light and atmospheric conditions –  mist, fog, snow, rain – and sunrises and sunsets… And the lake itself, its patterned surface, and the patterns it left on the sand had an impact on me.” Her Untitled weaving in blue horizontal bands give the impression of looking at Lake Erie through a window. The bands of blue undulate like the waves coming up to shore, similarly like another weaving in reds and oranges that give the impression of a sunset.

Samuel Butnik, Configuration, Rose, Courtesy of AAWR

Samuel Butnik’s Configuration series explored his sense of subtle color variations with sharp back and forth line movements like threads either being woven or unraveling. There are nearly imperceptible tonal changes to his colorations in Configuration, Rose. These subtle changes found in the lines drag the eye in and out of a shallow spatial construct that is created by the use of similar muted warm tones. They create an almost chaotic and organic rhythm of optical movement that contrasts nicely with the more grid oriented works of George Schroeder.

Ruth Bercaw, Chip No. 9 – Opening, 2004

Perhaps the artists working most closely to expanding on the same forms with differentiated color fields are Ruth Bercaw and Dan Tranberg. Both artists explored similar geometric arrangements in their works with altering planar color combinations to create a wide variety of visual effects. Bercaw evokes contrasting color fields on a series of similar shaped canvases that distort the viewer’s sense of depth perception. These forms, rectangles and triangles, are revisited throughout the series. In works like, Chip No. 9 – Opening, it is clear that the piece three-dimensionally expands from the wall, however, once positioned in a frontal view of the work it appears that it could also recede into space, creating a passage into which one could psychically enter. The use of geometry and color tricks the eye with its simplicity and minimalist approach, evoking the duality of spatial experiences.

Dan Tranberg, Cypher No. 1676a, Courtesy of AAWR

Tranberg, too, expanded on repeated explorations of the same geometric combinations. Three of his Cypher works on paper are precisely composed with identical geometric compositions, yet evoke different responses from their color combinations and pigment applications. Cypher No. 1676 is painted with the intent of a flat picture plane. The surface is smooth with solid color fields of shapes that interact and fit together in a tight composition. The other two Cypher works of the same composition alter the application of paint with stronger brushwork or with the inclusion of glitter. This shifts the compositional elements from a formal exploration of color to that of being expressive and in a way, humorous, showing just how versatile seriality can be.

Together with Tangents, A Hard Line answers the Abstract question. Through abstraction, artists help us understand the world around and within us. They build on traditions that are rooted in Northeast Ohio, “There really is a history of this type of work connected to the Cleveland Institute of Art and to our region overall,” Tousley concludes. These works collectively convey physiological, mental, spiritual, or emotional meditations. Their structures inform us of the infinite possibilities of seriality through new and unique combinations. Using either rigid or fluid systems, each piece by these artists gives us insights into how patterns and repetition can change our perceptions. Because these artists worked in a serial manner, one form is no longer a singularity, but an infinite array of possibilities.

Both exhibitions are on view at the Artists Archives of the Western reserve through December 16th.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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