What is America's greatest contribution to the modern art movement? Many art historians and critics agree that it's Abstract Expressionism. This movement dominated the New York scene during the 1940s and 50s. A major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art gave it official recognition in 1951.
What is abstract expressionism? It can be described as a relatively uninhibited projection of feeling with no concern about outward representation.Founders and major figures of the movement were DeKooning, Gorky, Hofmann, Kline, Pollock, Rothko, Still and others - artists so famous that only last names identify them.
The interesting thing about the movement is that although it emerged and spread rapidly, it has never died out. Over 40 years after reaching maturity, it still has many followers among artists and collectors alike.
Two of the first Utahns to become converted to Abstract Expressionism were Don Olsen and Doug Snow.
Books on modern art focus on male artists. Occasionally mention is made of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. But seen in true perspective, women artists have made significant contributions to Abstract Expressionism.
Over the years, women artists in Utah have been breathing life into this aging style - Carolyn Coalson, Lee Deffebach, Nel Ivancich, Bonnie Phillips, Randi Wagner and others.
In an attempt to discover why these artists became so enamoured with Abstract Expressionism, I interviewed three of them - Lee Deffebach, Bonnie Phillips and Randi Wagner.
My questions and their responses follow:
1. When did you first make the transition from traditional painting to Abstract Expressionism. And what prompted you to make it?
- Deffebach: "After graduating from the University of Utah with a traditional background in 1949, I took off for New York City and got caught up in the abstract expressionist movement. I went to galleries, got enraptured and never looked back."
- Phillips: "While attending Rowland Hall, I began to enjoy the mechanical aspects and abstract nature of the refineries in north Salt Lake."
Later, her painter husband, Denis, was very helpful. "He pointed out areas in my paintings that were successful - and those areas happened to be the abstract ones."
In 1963, she finally mustered enough courage to make the transition from representational art to abstract expressionism.
- Wagner graduated from Westminster in 1973. While there, she painted in a traditional manner. However, art department head Don Doxey recognized Wagner's work was strong in color so encouraged her to start moving into her own direction.
"In 1977, I had my first professional art exhibit - in the Union Gallery at the U. of U. I was moving in in the abstract direction at that time and about half of my paintings were painted that way."
2. What are the advantages and/or rewards for working in this style?
- Deffebach: "There is a drive within me to do abstraction because of the pleasure I derive from the process as well as the finished product." When she starts painting, the process takes over. There is total involvement in the process.
She added, "I don't have a preconceived idea ahead of time. When I put something down, I react to it. It tells me what I must do."
- Phillips said that abstract painting "continues to draw me. I am pulled in." She works slowly, waiting for inspiration. And she continues to work on her paintings until she senses she can't do more to them.
She was taught at the University of Utah that "less is more." But after she began working in an abstract way, she found that simplifying became more and more difficult. "Now, more . . . more . . . and more is best," she said.
- Wagner: "I have always viewed the world in a different way. I look at things that are real and beautiful, and then change them.
She said that a Chinese quotation pinpoints what she is trying to do in her work. "To portray a mood, not a fact, is ideal art."
She loves the freedom to express herself. "I'm not restricted to reproduce exactly what I see. My work goes through a distinctive process, an emotional process. The end produce is the essence of what inspired me."
3. Is it difficult to communicate through non-objective art?
All three agreed that this depends upon the individual.
- Deffebach said that when she paints, it is one of the most private things she can do. "It's inner communication with myself," she said. It doesn't tell a story. Viewers don't have to see what I see in it."
- Phillips: "It takes time to develop an appreciation. If people are willing to let go of preconceived notions and give abstract expressionism a chance, then, yes."
- Wagner: "I want each viewer to respond with his own experiences and feelings. I even leave the titles nebulous, so they won't restrict the viewer. But it is always fun and exciting when a viewer looks at a painting and feels what I feel and recognizes the source of the inspiration."
4. How is abstract expressionism received by Utahns? By out-of-staters?
- Deffebach: "Sales in Utah have not been so good." She said that abstract painters here might become famous, but not rich. "Sometimes I'd like to be rich and not famous. But I'm not complaining. It's a great business. And there's always hope that something will sell."
- Phillips said that many Utahns approach art on an intellectual, not an emotional level. They ask, "What is there to understand?"
"Outside the state, people don't have a fear of abstract art. They look at art on an emotional rather than an intellectual level," she said.
- Wagner: "Many Utahns don't have original art in their home, and it's hard for them to understand why they should pay $2000 for a painting." She said she recently tested the waters in Washington D.C. where she held a one-woman show. She was surprised at how excited and positive the people were. "Since they live close to major art museums and galleries, they are more educated. They are accustomed to buy original art. And they think a $2000 painting is a bargain."
5. Is abstract expressionism here to stay?
A resounding "yes" by all three painters.
- Deffebach: "People change. Styles change. But Abstract Expressionism has a validity of its own."
- Phillips: "More and more people are feeling comfortable with abstract art. But it takes education - and courage."
- Wagner: "Absolutely, I think particularly as our society gets more and more mechanized, the emotional quality of abstract art is something we seek and need. We need to have something to allow our imagination to work."
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Lee Deffebach's paintings can be seen at the Dolores Chase Gallery. She will have a one-woman show at the Finch Lane Gallery later this year.
Bonnie Phillips' works are on display at the Phillips and Pierpont Galleries. She and her husband are currently exhibiting recent works in the Loge Gallery at PMT.
Randi Wagner's colorful abstracts can be seen at the Kimball Art Center. She will be having a one-woman show there later this year.