In 1935, Pablo Picasso said, “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something.” This elusive and often undefinable something is the subject of the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s newest exhibit “Surfing the Century,” running from Feb. 5 to May 15.

Fine Arts Reviews
UMMA curator Sean Ulmer discusses a work from “Surfing the Century.” (Ashley Harper/Daily)

The eclectic exhibit is an arrangement of early and modern works from the last century, unexpectedly juxtaposed, creating an engaging visual comparison. Grouped together in the exhibit’s main viewing room are two beautiful Tiffany candle holders and two pieces of Pewabic pottery, which came out of the Detroit School of Art circa 1900. The visually stunning sculpture, “Flight of Night” by Paul Manship, sits opposite the action photographs of Barbara Morgan and Aaron Siskind. In the same main viewing space, works by Detroit painter Tyree Guyton are juxtaposed with abstractions from the ’50s by Mike Toby, Adolph Gotlieb and Milton Avery.

Leaving the wonderful mix of mediums in the main room behind, the viewer enters the exhibit’s second room and is immediately immersed in the geometric and illusionist art of the 20th century, loosely termed “minimalism.” The dizzying “Mercurius in the Vessel,” by Richard Anuszkiewicz, with its startling illusion of depth using bright, clashing colors, is almost painful to the eyes, but it is easily the most captivating work in the section.

Moving away from the art of geometry, Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup I, Green Pea” leads viewers into the area representing the school of Pop Art, described by Curator Sean Ulmer as a “reaction to Abstract Expressionism.” “Napoleon Standing Next to a Chair” by Larry Rivers and “Manet’s Olympia” by Mel Ramos, both draw on famous Classical works as inspiration while adding their own contemporary spin. These two pictures create a wonderful window into the art world created by the New York School in the mid-20th century.

“Stiff Box 12” by Lucas Samaras is an intense rendering of iron to create a dichotomy of violent edges and soft curves. Immediately following is the extremely popular “LOVE” by Robert Indiana, considered by Ulmer as an “iconic image of the ’60s.” The series of literature-based works by Glen Ligon entitled “Untitled (I Am An Invisible Man),” as well as Indiana’s, nicely fit in with the theme of incorporating the written word into contemporary American art.

It is in the second half of this section that is the most intriguing part of the exhibit. The series of photographs that include Alfred Stieglitz’s “The Steerage” and Robert Frank’s racially charged “American Flag in Brick Wall” provide a contrast to the surrounding natural landscape with their representations of America’s urban cityscape. Stieglitz’s piece is considered an icon of photography with its perfect contrast of the upper and lower classes aboard a trans-Atlantic ocean liner.

It is apparent in the second half of the last room that photography is the strongest facet of the exhibit. The Ansel Adams piece, entitled, “Moonrise over Hernendez, New Mexico,” is stunning in its naturalism, and it is juxtaposed brilliantly with German abstract expressionist Emil Nolde’s watercolor landscape. There is also “Manassas #28” by Sally Mann, which is a captivating rendering of the famous Civil War battleground. The last work in the exhibit, also by Mann, is entitled “Virginia,” and is, according to Ulmer, “a resurrection of techniques that are 100 years old,” and thus a suitable ending to the exhibit with its contemporary setting and dated techniques.

Overall, this exhibit is “very much a celebration of the pluralism of the 20th century,” said Ulmer. The viewer should keep in mind that this exhibit is “a reflection not just of art movements, but of man’s thought.”

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