Curated by Lawrence Rinder, Abstract Now and Then, drawn from the Berkeley Art Museum's permanent collection, underscores the huge role that abstraction has played in modern art. Broadly defined as the rejection of traditional realism in favor of other organizing principles, abstraction began mildly with the deformation of objects (post-impressionism, cubism), then evolved with changing priorities into abstract surrealism, abstract expressionism, geometric abstraction, constructivism, minimalism, and today's multimedia conceptualism. Experimental research into form and process in its various avatars has thus been art's motor, an engine both thrilling and, because of possible disaster, scary, like the thundering fatal juggernaut in the movie Runaway Train. Abstract Now and Then shows the impact of those researches as embodied in nearly one hundred drawings, paintings, sculptures, photos, and mixed-media works, with the "then" pieces in Gallery Six dating from 1940 to 1985, and the "now" works in Gallery Five from 1985 to 2010.
"Then" comprises 22 pieces, some from the usual American suspects (Francis, Frankenthaler, Gottlieb, Kelly, Mullican, Pollock, Reinhardt), others from less-familiar European names (Jean Fautrier, Asger Jorn, Pierre Soulages, and Jean Tinguely). There are surprises: Eleanor Antin's 51 postcards of boots on the march in different locations; Marcel Duchamp's "Boite, Série F" luxuriously ensconced in retinally scrumptious red leather; and Dan Flavin's photo of revolutionary hero Tatlin above a small photo of his neon homage. Standouts: Jean Arp's "Collection" of shapes suggesting tracks, hides, bones, and petroglyphs; Jay DeFeo's "Origin," a heavily impasted oil that plays powerfully with flatness and depth; Eva Hesse's "Aught," fleshy and vulnerable, suggesting beds and stretchers, now darkened by time; Asger Jorn's "The Scandal," compellingly mixing surrealism and expressionism; and Jean Tinguely's "Black Knight," a motorized steel contraption as absurdly indomitable as its robotic Monty Python eponym.
"Now" comprises some 60 pieces (counting the 43 collaborative "Morph Traits" drawings of Daniel Higgs and Kyle Ranson separately). Don't miss Ai Weiwei's faux-Ming porcelain Lewitt cube; Jim Drain's collage sculpture, "Scribe," with its angle irons and clamps connecting scraps of printed fabric and fake fur with a banister, a wooden tabletop, and a sock; Dean Smith's "Thought Form 11," a drawing of spatially ambiguous blue pyramids; Suzan Frecon's sumptuous oil in reds and maroons; Ron Nagle's monumental small-sculpture quintet; Ara Peterson's "Tower No. 1," a parodic striped architectural model probably improvised one slightly mutated layer after another; and the Higgs/Ranson drawing suite, featuring Easter eggs, fiery crosses, lactating breasts, visionary/oracular heads, and mythic totem animals. Abstract Now and Then runs through April 17 at Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). 510-643-6494 or BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu