To bring you a “behind-the-scenes” look at Macrocosm/Microcosm: Abstract Expressionism in the American Southwest, I talked to the exhibition’s curator. Mark White currently serves as the museum’s interim director and is also the Eugene B. Adkins Curator.
Jessica Farling: How long did you work on this project for the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art?
Mark White: Four years!
JF: Wow! Talk a little about the four-year curatorial process. What was the best part?
MW: The best part of the curatorial process was talking with the five living artists, their family, and their friends about the art history of the period. I not only enjoyed getting acquainted with them, but their help was invaluable in understanding the relationship between artists of different states. For example, I really enjoyed visiting Mary McChesney, writer and widow of artist Robert McChesney, who shared a number of stories about Taos with me. Her recollections of Louis Ribak and Bea Mandelman, Ed Corbett, Clay Spohn, and Agnes Martin were fascinating.
JF: What was the most tedious part?
MW: The most tedious part of the curatorial process was securing loans. I had to convince museums that the exhibit was worthwhile and important from a scholarly standpoint. Most were happy to help, but one very prominent museum was less than cooperative.
JF: I noticed that a number of the works in the exhibition are part of the museum’s permanent collection. How did the museum obtain the other works?
MW: Every other work in the exhibition was loaned by a museum or private collection. I should say that many of the works from our collection were received as gifts while I was working on the exhibition. The Mandelman-Ribak Foundation gave us two works, Mary McChesney gave a painting by her husband, Jonathan and Talitha Nichols gave us a painting by Charles Bunnell, and the Fitz family gave us one of Dord Fitz’s paintings.
JF: I remember when some of those works became part of the collection in 2011. At the time, I did not realize the gifts were connected with your work for Macrocosm/Microcosm. But thinking back now, Louis Ribak’s Red Canyon Rising was on display in the Sandy Bell Gallery!
JF: For the works on loan, what was your “sales pitch” to potential lenders?
MW: I positioned the exhibition as the first of its kind. Although there had been a few exhibits and publications about mid-century modernism in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, no one had drawn connections between modernists in various states in the Southwest, and little had been done to demonstrate how Abstract Expressionism in the Southwest both compared and differed from that on the East and West Coasts.
JF: Is there a work of art that you wanted to include in the exhibition but couldn’t for whatever reason?
JF: Now that we’ve discussed some of the planning that went into the exhibition, talk about the uniqueness of Macrocosm/Microcosm. In other words, why should people come see it before it closes on January 4?
MW: This is the first opportunity to see how Abstract Expressionism developed in the American Southwest, and much of the work included in the exhibition has not received the critical attention it deserves. I have heard from a number of visitors how fresh the exhibit seems, because the work is appealing and often unfamiliar. For Oklahomans, in particular, this is a great opportunity to see what the state’s modernists were doing in the 1950s and ’60s.
In addition, the exhibition draws direct connections between the art of the time period and important historical developments during the Atomic Age and the Space Race. Artists, like so many other Americans, responded to scientific and technological advances in intriguing ways.
The title for the exhibition is inspired by the following quote by photographer Ansel Adams regarding the American Southwest: “The skies and land are so enormous and the detail so precise and exquisite that wherever you are, you are isolated in a glowing world between the macro and micro…”
JF: Which one work of art do you think best represents both macrocosm and microcosm?
MW: Tough question! There are so many key works in the exhibition. I would say Louis Ribak’s Suspension is the closest. Given his title, the hovering bodies in the composition can be seen as either planetary, cosmic, or atmospheric forms, as well as atomic particles. Ribak would never have associated the forms too closely with either, but I think the evocative nature of the painting helps to associate it with both the macro and micro.
JF: What do you want visitors to walk away with after they see the exhibition?
MW: I would like them to see that the Southwest was very cosmopolitan during the 1950s and ’60s, and the latest developments in art and science had an important impact on the culture of the region.
Big thanks to Mark White for taking the time to talk more about Macrocosm/Microcosm: Abstract Expressionism in the American Southwest!
Have you seen the exhibition? Do you have questions for the curator? Post them here! We will get answers from Mark as soon as possible.
If you haven’t seen Macrocosm/Microcosm, check out a preview here and stop by the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art before January 4, 2015!
Director of Public Engagement
Elaine de Kooning (U.S. 1918–1989)
Oil on canvas, 82 1/2 x 77 3/4 in.
Collection of Linda and Robert Schmier; reproduction permission courtesy of the Elaine de Kooning Estate.
Louis Ribak ( U.S., b. Lithuania, 1902-1979)
Suspension , late 1950s
Oil on masonite, 72 x 36 in.
The Harwood Museum of Art, Taos.