Finding Abstract Expressionist treasures in the collection of Guild Hall

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Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) "Untitled," 1951. Photo by Gary Mamay

By Michelle Trauring

For the last four decades, Joan Marter has devoted her life to the exploration of contemporary art. And even she couldn’t believe her eyes as she unraveled the extent of Guild Hall’s permanent collection.

One painting, drawing and sculpture after the other led the art critic, author and academic to bubble over with joy. Each work conjured up the fond memories and deep nostalgia that she associates with the artists and the roles they played in the late 1940s, through the 1950s and beyond — artists she considers her heroes, and some of whom became her friends.

Ibram Lassaw (1913-2003) “Morning Star,” 1954. Photo by Gary Mamay

“I’m interested in a lot of things that are being done in contemporary art, but I have spent a lot of time looking at Abstract Expressionism,” she said, reliving her excitement during a recent telephone interview from her apartment in Manhattan. “So when I see a great painting, I’m thrilled.”

Curated into “Abstract Expressionism Revisited: Selections from the Guild Hall Museum Permanent Collection” — now on view at the East Hampton museum in conjunction with the complete digitization of the collection, available online — Marter narrowed down the collection to its most significant Abstract Expressionist works and traded their places in storage for space in the Moran and Woodhouse Galleries.

This is where they belong, she said.

“When I was looking at the art in storage with these two younger women from Guild Hall, I was bringing up various anecdotes about the artists who are in the show,” Marter said. “I had met Lee Krasner, Mercedes Matter; I was primarily interested in contemporary art, so there was nothing like a chance to meet some of these artists and to interview them and figure out ways I could write about them.”

The art speaks to Marter in that way, reminding her of the kind of people the artists were and how interesting it was to get to know them, she said — a journey she never could have imagined while growing up as an aspiring artist in Pennsylvania, or even at the start of her 38-year career teaching art history at Rutgers University.

Perle Fine (1905-1988) “A Broken Stillness,” 1954. Photo by Gary Mamay

“I started out as an art student,” she said. “I went to Tyler School of Art, which is part of Temple University, as an undergraduate. I was still thinking that I was going to be an artist. I have a background in studio art, and that’s why I always wanted to work on contemporary art.”

She naturally gravitated toward Abstract Expressionism, a movement that captured the imagination of the world. It put the United States on the international art stage, Marter explained, piggybacking on the nation’s post-World War II glow and global status as a power broker.

“At the end of the war, the troops come home and the artists — in some cases, who served in the war — they come back and then they start working,” Marter said. “The artistic leaders really encouraged people to work in this abstract style. They promoted it abroad because they wanted to show how open American society was, how free these artists were, and they actually had an international exhibition in ’59 called ‘The New American Painting,’ and it traveled all over Europe.

“The point of it was, ‘Look at our art. We’re not like the communists. We allow anything. We allow all of these very open, abstract paintings to be produced,’” she continued. “It was a charged time. For the artists, on the other hand, who lived through the war period, some of this art is about the chaos and also the anxiety that was caused by the war.”

The movers and shakers of the avant-garde movement gravitated toward the East End in the 1950s, among them Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, James Brooks, Charlotte Park, Robert Motherwell, and Grace Hartigan — leaving an artistic legacy in their wake that has attracted a new generation of artists and creative types, including Marter 34 years ago.

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) “Untitled,” 1974. Photo by Gary Mamay

“When I started teaching at Rutgers, I heard about East Hampton,” she said. “I vaguely knew about it — East Hampton and the Springs is in a lot of the literature on these artists — but I had never been here. Never.”

All it took was one visit to East Hampton, the art historian said with a laugh, and “that was it. And when I first moved out there, many of these artists were still alive.”

Sculptor Ibram Lassaw, who would become one of her first artist friends, lived just 10 minutes from her at the time. One day, he fired up his equipment for Marter and her daughter, and showed them how he considered himself to be an Abstract Expressionist, working directly with metal without any preliminary sketches.

“It was free-flowing direct expression,” Marter said. “And of course you see that in Pollock’s work, especially the things where he’s doing them on the floor and walking across the painting. The whole idea is you don’t really know where it’s going, exactly. You just start and then you keep working until you don’t work anymore.

“I do think art, not all art, but much of art should have a visual appeal and that it should communicate a certain way with people,” she added. “And I think this art does.”

Above all, the exhibition of paintings, works on paper and sculpture, including a large piece by Lassaw, celebrates the collection of abstract expressionist art owned by Guild Hall, one that is deserving of recognition and pride, Marter said — though there is a glaring oversight.

James Brooks (1906 – 1992 ) “Floxurn,” 1955. Photo by Gary Mamay

“I think that this show has a triumphant aspect to it, in the sense that here they have all of these magnificent works, but one of the things that is a disappointment in the collection is the fact that they don’t have a major Pollock,” she said. “I’m hopeful that looking at the show, that someone somewhere — maybe in the community of East Hampton — will recognize that this museum deserves to have a major work by Pollock. It’s something that really belongs to this community and it should be there. That’s a wish that I have for the collection.”

“Abstract Expressionism Revisited: Selections from the Guild Hall Museum Permanent Collection,” curated by Joan Marter, will remain on view through December 30 at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Admission is free. For more information, call 631-324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.

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