Selections from a History of Modernism

December 12, 2017 to March 18, 2018

Franz Kline, Untitled, c. 1950, Ink and paint on wove paper mounted on rag board. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of Katharine Kuh, 1969.2.

This exhibition of abstract paintings and works on paper from the 1940s and 1950s serves as a primary source for the University of Chicago Art History course Modernism (ARTH 17610).

The works on view—by Willem De Kooning, Arthur Dove, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and William Turnbull—encourage reflection on mid-century abstraction and its interpretative challenges. Abstraction is often seen as a modernist way to create an autonomous object, an object that does not ostensibly refer to the external world but functions instead by means of its own formal properties. Though widely shared, that single goal led to a wide range of results in mid-century America. 

This mini-exhibition allows us to examine how artists arrived at surprising effects through their creative use of materials, techniques, sizes, and scales. It also prompts us to explore how it is these artists could produce significant works without recourse to identifiable subjects or figuration. And it makes us question how we should best articulate our responses to works that seem to have been created so as to defy traditional ways of finding and articulating meaning.

Selections from a History of Modernism is one of several concurrent exhibitions that showcase the ways in which the Smart Museum engages with and shares the intellectual life of the University with the broader public.