For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2001

A Matter of Degree: Abstraction in Twentieth Century Art

November 10, 2001 - January 27, 2002
Twentieth-Century Gallery


Ben Nicholson
British, 1894-1982
Still Life
1945
Oil on board
University of Michigan Museum of Art Acquisition Fund
1951/2.25

The discourse on the history of twentieth century art can sometimes seem confusing. In no other era have there been so many labels applied to the diverse output of its artists. Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Regionalism, Pop, Op, Minimalism, Modernism, Post-Modernism, and Conceptual Art are some of the best known. This diversity of styles, and the language used to describe the differences among them, go to the core of the difficulties faced by people trying to describe the fundamental characteristics of the art of this century.

The works included in this exhibition, drawn from the Museum's collection, span the whole of the twentieth century and present the viewer with a meaningful overview of the many degrees of "abstraction." Some images are very close to their counterparts in nature and the artist only moved slightly into the realm of abstraction in that particular work. For example, Andy Warhol's famous image of Marilyn Monroe remains quite readily recognizable even though Warhol has flattened the image and colored it in a purposeful but non-naturalistic manner. Other works are much more abstracted, such as Albert Gleizes' Sur le Flat-Iron of 1916, which references the famous triangular building in New York but does so in a Cubist vocabulary. As a result, the representation is composed of a series of fractured planes, and the viewer's knowledge of the building allows for the necessary visual assemblage. In each case, the artist made careful choices about abstract his or her image for the finished result. The results are as varied as the artists themselves, and this diversity is one of the hallmarks of art in the twentieth century.

Sean M. Ulmer
University Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art