"AB-EX/RE-CON: Abstract Expressionism Reconsidered," opening Saturday at the Nassau County Museum of Art, raises the question: Why now? The answer, according to museum director Karl Willers, who curated the exhibition, is that the abstract expressionist pioneers are all part of art history now.
"In the '80s, many of them were still alive and some still working, even into the '90s," says Willers. "But their whole generation is gone now. It's a major legacy for us to examine, but we take a pretty good stab at it."
Certainly the abstract expressionists are worth reconsideration. Theirs was the first important art movement to spread from the United States to Europe rather than the other way around. It made New York -- home base (along with Long Island) of the abstract expressionists -- an international art capital rivaling Paris.
Willers puts major figures in abstract expressionism -- Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Franz Jozef Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Diebenkorn, Jimmy Ernst, Helen Frankethaler and Grace Hartigan -- in context, both among lesser-known contemporaries (Fritz Bultman, Jon Schueler) and abstract expressionists working today. Separate mini-exhibits focus on art by Rita Rogers of Rhode Island, Judith Godwin of New York City and Stan Brodsky of Huntington.
Lately, since Brodsky began deploying a paint stick -- "it's like a child using a crayon, drawing and painting, coloring really, at the same time -- my work imparts movement, rhythm, in the gestures I make in applying paint to canvas. I'm a colorist, essentially."
Brodsky agrees that his work, like the abstract expressionists, involves a different way of seeing, which has been described as deploying an "innocent eye" -- the way an infant sees the world before he or she recognizes what the colors and figures are -- "before a name is attached to those objects," Brodsky says.
Beyond living artists, Willers says "AB-EX/RE-CON" includes a sprinkling of abstracts from "before the modernist era as a point of entry."
ISLAND COLLECTORS In the tradition of the Nassau museum, the exhibit comes from private collections. Much of the work has rarely, if ever, been displayed publicly before. Two of the three collections making up the bulk of "AB-EX/RE-CON" are from Long Island, one from an anonymous lender and the other from the Clark family of Roslyn, practically in the museum's neighborhood.
"Serious collectors do the groundwork for art historians," says Willers. "Eventually the pieces find their way into museums for us to consider."
Or in this case, to reconsider a revolutionary movement.
WHAT "AB-EX/RE-CON: Abstract Expressionism Reconsidered"
Nassau County Museum of Art, 1 Museum Dr., Roslyn Harbor
ADMISSION $10, $8 seniors, $4 students, $2 parking on weekends; 516-484-9337, nassaumuseum.org