Ackland Exhibition to Showcase Significance of 1958

This fall, the Ackland Art Museum will present the first major exhibition to examine the importance of the year 1958 as a critical tipping point in the evolution of American art.

“Circa 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art,” on view Sept. 21 through Jan. 4, 2009, explores in-depth the moment American artists first departed from abstract expressionism to develop trends that helped define the last half of the 20th century. The exhibition includes about 60 works by 56 artists drawn from more than 50 public and private collections, including the holdings of many of the artists themselves.

Roni Feinstein, who guest-curated the exhibition, is an independent scholar and corresponding editor for Art in America magazine. She also teaches in the education department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“Circa 1958” features groundbreaking, challenging and significant works – some rarely exhibited – by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Ed Ruscha, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, Lee Bontecou, John Chamberlain, Louise Nevelson, George Segal, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella and Agnes Martin, among others.

One of the most significant special exhibitions the Ackland has mounted, “Circa 1958” celebrates the museum’s 50th anniversary and will be accompanied by a publication and programming. This summer, the Ackland will announce exhibition-related special events that will take place throughout the fall.

“This ambitious exhibition is the first opportunity to see these landmark works together in one place,” said Emily Kass, director of the Ackland. “A wide variety of influences helped make 1958 a pivotal moment in artistic exploration, and we are proud to host so many important artists’ work from this time.”

The exhibition focuses on two primary directions that emerged at the time: Assemblage and Hard-Edge, or Post-Painterly, Abstraction. Artists working in these modes sought to rid themselves of the painterly gestures that dominated the artistic practice of their elders, as well as of the romantic rhetoric surrounding their work. Instead, they favored more literal attitudes about the materials and processes of art making.

Assemblage artists manipulated a wide variety of commonplace materials in real space, expanding definitions of art and laying the groundwork for new movements in the art world including Environments and Happenings in the late 1950s and Pop and Fluxus by the early 1960s.

In contrast, Hard-Edge and Post-Painterly Abstraction involved an emphasis on the formal elements of art making: line, shape, color and form. The simple, preconceived structures favored by many of these artists set the stage for Minimal Art in the next decade.

The emergence of Assemblage is explored in “Circa 1958” by artists whose work defies strict categorization: Rauschenberg, Johns, Nevelson, Segal, Chamberlain and Bontecou.

Early works by Oldenburg, Warhol, Jim Dine, Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Tom Wesselmann point the way to Pop art. Works by Ono, Alan Kaprow, Robert Morris and George Brecht – indebted to Marcel Duchamp and John Cage – foretell Performance Art and the Fluxus movement.

Hard-Edge and Post-Painterly Abstraction are represented by Stella, Morris Louis, Alexander Liberman, Alfred Jensen and Jack Youngerman, all of whom produced works suggesting the richness and visual complexity of this defining period.

Pieces by Nicolas Krushenick and Richard Anuskiewicz announce the arrival of Op art. Kelly, Leon Polk Smith and Myron Stout – pioneers of anti-gestural work early in the 1950s – are included, as are significant early pieces of the late 1950s and early 1960s by Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Tony Smith, Ronald Bladen and Larry Bell. The simple forms favored by these artists set the stage for Minimal art in the next decade.

Most of the work in the exhibition dates to 1958, plus or minus a year or two. This window of time, seen through the lens of history, allows people today to consider the artists, factors and influences that informed the explosive growth of the art world in the next decade.

Feinstein holds a doctorate in 20th-century European and American art from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Formerly director of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Stamford, Conn., branch, she also has been a visiting professor at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.

Feinstein has more than 30 years of museum experience. She has curated numerous exhibitions, including “Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64” at the Whitney in New York; and “The ‘Junk’ Aesthetic: Assemblage of the 1950s and Early 1960s, American Print Renaissance 1958-1988,” and “With the Grain: Contemporary Panel Painting” at the Whitney’s Stamford Branch.

“Circa 1958” is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalog featuring the about 60 full-color prints, as well as a critical essay by Feinstein and an introduction by Kass. It will be available for purchase starting in mid-August through the Ackland website or by calling (919) 966-5736.

The Ackland is an academic unit of the University and serves local, state and national constituencies. Its collection consists of more than 15,000 works of art, featuring North Carolina’s premier collections of Asian art and works of art on paper – drawings, prints and photographs – plus significant collections of European masterworks, 20th-century and contemporary art, African art and North Carolina pottery and folk art.

Admission is always free to the Ackland, at the corner of South Columbia and East Franklin streets. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. The museum also remains open until 9 p.m. on the second Friday of every month.

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