Abstraction and the Movies

The title of an exhibition at the Anderson Collection at Stanford, which, in the gallery’s release, “pairs and compares movies and paintings from the early to mid-twentieth century”. A substantial number of pairings, sprinkled throughout the Abstract Expressionism section of the museum, among other paintings from the artistic movement, broadly understood. Also from the gallery’s release, one example:


A lively assessment, from KQED’s Sarah Hotchkiss on March 1st, “Paintings Get the Hollywood Treatment in Student-Curated Show at Anderson”:

If you’d been dragging your feet on getting to Palo Alto for the Anderson Collection’s Nick Cave exhibition (of Soundsuits, not Bad Seeds fame), now is the time. In addition to [Cave’s] person-sized sculptures made for shimmying, the free collection displays Abstraction and the Movies March 1-17 only.

Curated by current Stanford undergrad Carlos Valladares, Abstraction and the Movies pairs works from the Anderson Collection with images and posters from films of the “classical Hollywood period,” defined as the years between the introduction of sound (1927) and the release of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). [Plus a pairing of a Wayne Thiebaud pastry painting — not Absract Expressionist at all — with the 2016 movie La La Land.]

Two notes: one of admiration for Stanford’s increasing integration of university education (in courses and in student projects, both undergraduate and graduate) with the traditional aims of museum exhibitions; and one about the constraint that Valladares had to work under, of using only artworks already in the university’s collections (no lending from other institutions) — a constraint that obliged him to hustle in finding pairings.

While Valladares makes no claims that the abstract paintings directly influenced a film’s aesthetics, the similarities speak to the time and place of their making, visual proof of a zeitgeist in both high art and mass media. Valladares, who will graduate in 2018 with film and media studies and American studies degrees, is currently enrolled in a class on abstract expressionism with professor Alexander Nemerov. After multiple visits to the Anderson Collection, Valladares and Nemerov approached the collection with the idea for Abstraction and the Movies.

Hotchkiss’s example:


Richard Diebenkorn, ‘Ocean Park #60,’ 1973; Elliot Gould in ‘The Long Goodbye,’ 1973

“Unexpected angles reveal fresh visions of what these works were and are,” Valladares writes in the exhibition text. He describes the selections as “openly personal,” rooted in his own love of film.

Pairings include [#1] Mark Rothko’s Pink and White Over Red (1957) and the fiery poster for Vincente Minelli’s 1958 drama Some Came Running. Behind dramatic illustrations of a young Shirley MacClaine, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, the film’s poster recalls the brushy reds and pinks of Rothko’s rectangles.

In another example [#2], Valladares matches Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #60 (1973) — a painting full of cool blues and horizontal lines — with a still from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Elliot Gould, cigarette in lips, marches purposefully toward the camera in a crisp navy suit as waves crash behind him.

Aimee Shapiro, the Anderson Collection’s director of programming and engagement, says Valladares’ pairings recontextualized these “heavy hitters” of abstraction for her. “In looking at the paintings next to some of the labels written by Carlos,” she says, “I have to say I saw the work in a different way than I had ever before — and I’ve been with these paintings for almost three years.”

And then this Thiebaud, paired with La La Land:



The artists include, in addition to the three above (this from memory, so probably neither complete nor entirely accurate): Jackson Pollack, Robert Motherwell, Mark Tobey, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, Josef Albers. My recollection of the movies is much less good, but I did note two Richard Lesters (the early A Hard Days Night and the late Robin and Marian) and the remarkable Charles Laughton Night of the Hunter (an old favorite).

Now extended footnotes, on Rothko, Some Came Running, Diebenkorn, The Long Goodbye, Thiebaud, and La La Land.

Mark Rothko. Briefly from Wikipedia:

Mark Rothko ( … born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz …; September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970), was an American painter of Russian Jewish descent. Although Rothko himself refused to adhere to any art movement, he is generally identified as an abstract expressionist. With Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, he is one of the most famous postwar American artists.

Some Came Running. Also from Wikipedia:

Some Came Running is a 1958 American crime film directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine, based on the novel of the same name by James Jones. It tells the story of a troubled Army veteran and author who returns to his Midwestern hometown after 16 years, to the chagrin of his wealthy, social-climbing brother.

Richard Diebenkorn. From Wikipedia:

Richard Diebenkorn (April 22, 1922 – March 30, 1993) was an American painter. His early work is associated with abstract expressionism and the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. His later work (best known as the Ocean Park paintings) were instrumental to his achievement of worldwide acclaim.

… In 1967, Diebenkorn moved to Santa Monica and took up a professorship at UCLA. He moved into a small studio space in the same building as his old friend from the Bay Area, Sam Francis. In the winter of 1966–67 he returned to abstraction, this time in a distinctly personal, geometric style that clearly departed from his early abstract expressionist period. The “Ocean Park” series, begun in 1967 and developed for the next 18 years, became his most famous work and resulted in approximately 135 paintings. Based on the aerial landscape and perhaps the view from the window of his studio, these large-scale abstract compositions are named after a community in Santa Monica, where he had his studio. … The Ocean Park series bridges his earlier abstract expressionist works with color field painting and lyrical abstraction.

The Ocean Park painting in #3 gets the sense of the beach at Santa Monica, but it doesn’t fit so well with the tone of the movie.

The Long Goodbye. Also from Wikipedia:

The Long Goodbye is a 1973 neo-noir film directed by Robert Altman and based on Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same name. The screenplay was written by Leigh Brackett, who cowrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep in 1946. The film stars Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe and features Sterling Hayden, Nina Van Pallandt, Jim Bouton, and Mark Rydell.

The story’s period was moved from 1949–50 to 1970s Hollywood. The Long Goodbye has been described as “a study of a moral and decent man cast adrift in a selfish, self-obsessed society where lives can be thrown away without a backward glance … and any notions of friendship and loyalty are meaningless.”

The film is Altmanly conplex, and morally very dark. (It was not a critical success at first, and then gradually became something of a classic. I saw it twice when it first came out — found it wonderfully crafted and acted, but also distressing. All around Marlowe are sunk in moral decay or just oblivious, and in the end he wastes the most disturbing of them and then insouciantly just strolls off.)

Wayne Thiebaud. Covered in a 12/5/16 posting of mine, with a different pastry painting than #3.

La La Land. From Wikipedia:

La La Land is a 2016 American musical romantic comedy-drama film written and directed by Damien Chazelle, and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a musician and an aspiring actress who meet and fall in love in Los Angeles. The film’s title refers both to the city of Los Angeles and to the idiom for being out of touch with reality.

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