Stanford Gets 'Left of Center'

New exhibition of nonrepresentational abstraction opens a world of possibilities
QUIET MOMENT: 'At The Lake, Morning' (detail) by Jennifer Bartlett offers the elusive dream of a world settling into repose.

My heartbeat accelerated when I caught a glimpse of Joan Mitchell's Before, Again IV from the bottom of the wide steps that lead up to the main gallery upstairs. Her periwinkle- and rust-colored scribbles were the welcoming salvo into abstract expressionism that I'd been waiting for.

As I approached the second-floor landing, I started to register the presence of dozens of other monumentally sized paintings alongside Mitchell's. I suddenly felt like a hound who'd caught the scent of the hunt, dumbstruck by the thought of what my senses had stumbled upon.

In the past, I've shied away from nonrepresentational work, which often looks daunting and difficult to parse. Yet, despite the varying approaches and materials in this show, "Left of Center: Five Years of the Anderson Collection at Stanford University" presents something cohesive and communal—the unmistakable consciousness of the American West, and more often than not of California, in the mid to late 20th century.

At a fifth anniversary celebration of the Anderson this past Saturday, I had walked inside to look for the LED sculptures in the contemporaneous Jim Campbell exhibit. But none of his blinking lights captured my attention the way that the Left Coast paintings did. To be fair to Campbell, against the white walls, gallery lights and natural sunshine, his digital landscapes couldn't compete with the analog textures of works like Robert Motherwell's Italian Summer, Franz Kline's Figure 8 and Frank Stella's Zeltweg.

In addition to the pleasure of spending time with the paintings themselves, any Art History 101 class would benefit from a field trip to the gallery. There are smart curatorial pairings that make the mind's associative powers kick in. Mark Rothko's Untitled (Black on Gray) hangs directly adjacent to Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Painting. What used to read as a dull sameness pulsed to life, as if the two painters' black moods were facing each other in a long-delayed but convulsive dialogue. Nearby, the painting I liked the least was also the one I had the most affection for, Josef Albers' Homage to the Square: Diffused. His concentric, off-kilter squares lie flat and dimensionless on the canvas. But the pale yellows—of faded sunflowers and depressed marigolds—paid homage to the kitchens and couches and cars of my childhood. When I was growing up, I had shoes and T-shirts in shades like these that seemed, for the sake of fashion back then, drained of their good cheer.

My sense of nostalgia deepened as I passed by the contemplative melancholy found in Paul Wonner's Figure by Window and Jennifer Bartlett's massive At the Lake, Morning. They offer the elusive dream of a world settling in for a quiet repose. Wonner's figure reads a newspaper in a cool blue room. She's probably waiting in peace while the rest of her family swims in Batlett's lake. What "Left of Center" conjures up is a sense of psychic real estate. No one in the Bay Area is lazily drifting toward a soporific state of being anymore. Those wide open, undeveloped spaces that visit the canvases no longer exist.

I also loved the framed Leo Holub photographs of the artists with their paintings. I could put a face to the name of Robert Therrien, an artist who fashioned a blood red scaffold (No title (hangman)) out of enamel, aluminum and brass. In her portrait, Bartlett sits cross-legged on a stool in front of a still life with a dead bird flopped face down onto a table. And Jay DeFeo's smile beams and belies the turbulent fire rising up from the center of her work.

DeFeo's Summer Image (For My Mother) is a conveyance that commemorates her mother's death. She transports the complications of grief onto the canvas. She bends the body and its internal torment further even than Francis Bacon, until the physical self dissolves into unrecognizable curves and angles. "Left of Center" doesn't feel stale and dated. Abstract work like this just makes the past seem more alive than the present.

Left of Center
Thru Sep 2020, Free
Anderson Collection, Stanford University

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