New Angles in Abstract Art at MASS MoCA

‘In the Abstract’ offers a closer look at where abstraction is today

Sarah Braman’s work — such as this 2016 piece, “In Bed (how do we sleep when the planet is melting”), an arrangement of steel bunk beds, mattress, glass, aluminum frame, storm door, acrylic sticker, hand dyed bed sheets, acrylic and enamel paint — has been described as a “monument to the everyday,” repurposing items we all know and adding structural elements of balance and different shades of light. CHRISTOPHER BURKE — PHOTO PROVIDED BY MASS MoCA

Posted Thursday, May 4, 2017

By Christopher Marcisz, Special to The Eagle

NORTH ADAMS — When you first meet Sarah Braman’s sculpture you might not realize how to interact with it. It’s familiar, but a little askew — a truck cap with a print of a sunset, balancing over a small space made of tinted-glass walls, lined with rugs and books. You might feel you can climb in if you’d like.3

“It is definitely meant to be used, and to be in,” said Braman, an artist based in Amherst and New York. “Of course I wanted people to be able to walk around it like a sculpture and see it from the outside, but the experience you get from afar is like seeing a house from the outside.”

Braman’s work has been described as a “monument to the everyday,” repurposing items we all know and adding structural elements of balance and different shades of light. This isn’t the kind of rule-bound, inaccessible abstract art that can intimidate casual viewers.

She is one of the 11 artists featured in “In the Abstract” — which opened early this month in MASS MoCA’s first-floor galleries— which looks at art that is largely non-representational; isn’t necessarily a depiction of a specific thing, and how it tries to activate different layers of feeling and understanding. And almost all the works use elements of figurative imagery and themes as a way to help get there.

“To me, this is an interesting union of the two,” said Susan Cross, MASS MoCA’s curator of visual arts. “It is how these artists can speak these different languages to not only engage states beyond language, but also engage with the real world.”

Letha Wilson, “Kilauea Seaview Concrete Ripple Tondo”

Many of the works, like Braman’s, want you to rethink where you are in space and question what you think you are looking at. Rodney McMillian’s “a beckoning: We are not who we think we are,” is an 80-foot long, tunnel-shaped painting. Letha Wilson for her “Kilauea Seaview Concrete Ripple Tondo” used a color photograph folded into pleats as a mold for concrete. The image is transferred and creates a deceptively delicate and fragile appearance.

Abstraction isn’t just about painting and sculpture. Matt Saunders’ video installation, “Reverdy/King Hu/Reverdy,” is a sequence of screens and projectors carefully arranged around two rooms. Each is a loop of abstract images that are shown in a slowed strobe effect. Most are abstract blots and smears, which deliberately bleed over and through their screen and cross each other. But for some intervals the images formulate themselves as recognizable images of figures in motion, which emerge from the noise of light into which they return.

Works by Rose Marcus include photographs of around Central Park which linger on repeating patterns like mosaic tiles and footwear logos, with a layer of artistic intervention in the form of draped fabrics and plexiglas slashes.

All of the work in from artists working in America over the last 10 years, and reflects where the concept is at the moment. Abstraction has been a recurring theme in art since the 19th century, beginning as a turn away from the material, industrial world in search of a deeper set of truths. It would dominate the postwar American art scene, with the flowering of Abstract Expressionism and its range of approaches like the drips of Jackson Pollock, the ‘zips’ of Barnett Newman, and the color fields of Mark Rothko.

But it can spark reactions, especially when it seems to have lost its grounding and strayed too far into process for its own sake. A recent art world dust-up began in 2014, when artist and critic Walter Robinson used the phrase “Zombie Formalism” to describe a new crop of abstract artists. These were mostly young artists who created non-representational art that was packaged with the correct postmodern chatter and sold for large amounts of money. It was work that some saw as ready-made for commercial motives — some noticed how most of the work was vertical, to look better on social media, and was popular among hip interior designers.

Cross said the exhibit she curated wasn’t about a particular technique or group, and that she wanted artists who shared affinities, but were still pursuing individual purposes. “For me this abstraction isn’t just about process, but about engaging with the world,” she said. “This is not a retreat, but a way to process and think about social and political realities as we know it, and investigate and capture those real emotional, physical, conceptual, spatial states we are not always as much in touch with.”

That can include the social angle of shared grief and pain, as in Doug Ashford’s “Many Readers of One Event,” or race in America, as explored in a gathering of work by Tomashi Jackson. Her work includes brightly colored knitted patterns, arranged on ladders or hangars leaning on the wall with images of schoolchildren printed on the delicate bits of hanging gauze and plastic.

Tomashi Jackson’s “Upright, Colored, and Free”

The works were inspired by Josef Albers’ theories about color perception as something relative, and the legal writing of Thurgood Marshall, which laid out the moral case against school segregation. Both were written at about the same time.

While the historic details of the point may be difficult to communicate without explanatory text, the spirit of the idea is there: That there are systems of organizing colors and people, and how do we know what is real and what is just a matter of perception.

Originally published at

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.