Arts / The gallery’s all-American outing

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Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” (1952)… in 1973, the most expensive American painting ever sold.

“WE revere ‘Blue Poles’ but there’s much more in the show than that,” says Lucina Ward, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Gallery, about the coming “American Masters” exhibition.

It’s hard not to think of “our” great abstract expressionist painting given this show of works is entirely drawn from the NGA’s collection. After all, when the fledgling gallery acquired Jackson Pollock’s work in 1973 it was the most expensive American painting ever sold.

But Ward is right that there’s more than Pollock. The exhibition “American Masters: 1940 to 1980”, lavishly installed in six rooms, ranges from the period following World War II, when America became centre stage in a transfer of art focus from Europe to the New World. Ward puts this down partly to the appearance of émigré artists in the US.

The show is supported by the Chicago/Paris Terra Foundation for American Art, whose representatives have been saying: “Wow – you’ve even got that!” on viewing the content of the show.

Frank Stella’s “Flin Flon” (1970).

There’s a buzz of excitement around the national collecting institution, with new director Nick Mitzevich full of eager anticipation at the prospect of seeing famous works he last viewed as a boy. Staff are chuffed to think that Canberra’s exhibition, which includes works rarely on public display, will easily rival “MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art”, the Melbourne winter masterpieces show for this year.

Ward makes no secret of her admiration for the founding director of the gallery, James Mollison, whom she met at age 16 and who, she says, always wrote to dealers saying, “unless it is of the highest quality, we’re just not interested”.

Before the gallery was open to the public in 1982, Mollison had collected a huge range of “destination works” even before we knew the term, and the NGA’s collection of modern American art is now very likely the second biggest outside the US.

Audrey Flack’s 1973 oil-on-canvas “Jolie Madame” (Pretty Woman).

There were, to be sure, significant additions in 2002 when the Kenneth Tyler Print Collection was gifted to the NGA under the watch of former director Brian Kennedy, bringing in a huge catalogue of work by celebrated 20th century printmakers.

“Much of that has now been digitised, so it’s an international resource,” Ward says with pride.

Two-thousand-and-two was also the same year the NGA Foundation, with the assistance of Terrey and Anne Arcus and Penelope and Harry Seidler, bought Frank Stella’s “Flin Flon”.

As we enter the exhibition Ward says we’ll be thrown into the world of the abstract expressionist “bad boys”, artists such as Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Most of these works are permanently on display at the NGA, so this will be the most familiar part.

“Elegy to the Spanish Republic” (1958) by Robert Motherwell.

Appropriately, the second room will hold work by the second generation artists, “not quite such bad boys”, she says, of artists Robert Motherwell and Morris Louis, who were defined by critic Clement Greenberg as “colour field” painters.

In the third room we’ll see how everything was turned on its head by pop art in the ’50s and ’60s. The NGA’s collection of work by Andy Warhol is notable.

The fourth gallery will cover the arrival of minimalist and conceptual art of the late ’60s and ’70s. The inclusion of Eva Hesse’s “Contingent” and “Slab” (cloud) by Robert Morris are, to her, most exciting.

A return to realism will be seen in the fifth room, where works of photo realism will be shown in works by artists such as Chuck Close and Audrey Flack.

Room six will be filled with the art of light. Outside in the gallery’s gardens is “Within Without”, the skyspace work by American artist James Turrell and part of a “different narrative” that saw the geographical focus of American art move from the east to the west coast of the US in works based on light, space, and sophisticated technology.

“American Masters: 1940 to 1980”, National Gallery of Australia, August 24-November 11. Free, no booking required.

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