Partnership aims to increase understanding of abstract art

Abstract work from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., featured in the exhibition “Abstract in America: 1940s to 1960s” will be on display in the Strohl Art Center throughout the summer. This is supported by the three-year partnership with the Albright-Knox. Photo by Megan Tan.

Elora Tocci | Staff Writer

When Charlie Parker’s jazz music blares through the radio, people don’t usually try to interpret it.

They may feel liberated by it; they may wince at it; they may barely notice when it comes on, but rarely will listeners ask for an explanation of the music. They’re not looking for a way to translate the rhythms and notes into ideas they can hold onto and discuss. They let the sounds wash over them, and they are content to take what they choose from the music.

The same is not always true of abstract art, said Don Kimes, artistic director of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution. When looking at abstract art, people often want a 30-second rundown of what pieces are supposed to mean.

“People understand art when it’s rendered well technically, but it can be more difficult to understand the power of an abstract image itself and what that image is trying to convey,” Kimes said.

Americans made major contributions to jazz and abstract expressionism in the 20th century, but while the jazz movement is celebrated, abstract art is often not as well understood.

Kimes would like viewers to take another look at abstract art and try to understand it, whether we derive meaning from movement, color and light or a visceral reaction to the work. So he helped organize a partnership with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.

The three-year collaboration will install summer-long exhibitions of pieces selected by Kimes from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery that explore the evolution of abstract art in America since the 1940s. The “Abstraction in America: 1940s to 1960s” exhibition will open with a reception from 3–5 p.m. Sunday in the Strohl Art Center–Gallo Family Gallery.

“Abstraction grew out of the world as it existed in the 1940s,” said Kimes, who worked with Ilana Chlebowski, Albright-Knox’s curatorial assistant, to curate the exhibition. “The world was falling to pieces and didn’t make much sense, and the art at the time was radical and revolutionary.”

Often, however, people look at abstract pieces from that era and think, “I can do that.” Because Chautauqua Institution has an educational mission, Kimes said he wanted to raise the bar in the art galleries and challenge people to think differently about abstraction.

“The historical heritage in America is raw, rough, wilderness,” he said. “It’s not loaded with art like it is in Europe. There, you grow up looking at art and you have a different relationship with what visual imagery can mean.”

Kimes ultimately hopes Chautauquans will gain a deeper cultural and historical understanding of abstraction from the Albright-Knox partnership. This summer’s show, which will be the first to run throughout the entirety of the Institution’s nine-week season, will feature work from major American artists such as Hans Hofmann, Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly.

The pieces will reflect the chaos and revolution of the era and will hopefully encourage people who want to better understand the meaning of a piece to look closer and draw their own conclusions about the art.

“We grow up around music; radios are always turned on; our mothers sing us to sleep,” Kimes said. “We develop an appreciation for rock and roll or classical music. You might have heard music every day of your life, but most high school students can probably count on both hands the number of times they went to see art. So you may be 20 years old in music, but you’re 20 days old in art.”

For those interested in exploring the exhibition with Kimes, he will be doing the docent tour for the show at 2 p.m. Tuesdays.