Being Realistic About Abstract Art

Lee Gatch, Thespian Night

“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult,” said Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), often referred to as the father of abstract painting. “It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.”

Curator Margaret O’Reilly uses Kandinsky’s quote as the jumping off point for Abstract Expressions: Selected Works from the New Jersey State Museum at The College of New Jersey Art Gallery January 27 through February 28, with an opening reception January 27, 5-7 p.m. On view are works by Mel Edwards, Lee Gatch, Yayoi Kusama, Louise Nevelson and many others.

“When people hear ‘abstraction,’ they think of Jackson Pollock,” says O’Reilly, “or art with no subject. They think ‘I can do that.’ But it’s not so simple. It was groundbreaking when Kandinsky (was painting biomorphic forms). It was going against what was expected, and Americans were slower to accept it. As an artist, if you don’t have talent and a basic understanding of the precepts of art—color, form—you can’t do it.

“I wanted to show the broad range of how abstract artists treat a subject,” continues O’Reilly, “such as a work from James Andrew Brown’s ‘Imposter’ series, in which there’s definitely a face of some kind, but it’s abstracted.” Brown’s artwork, often made up of thrift-store objects—old quilts, doll heads, religious kitsch, paint, toys, thrift shop fabrics and TVs—confronts cultural and race issues.

“Dahlia Elsayed’s images are maps, but they are abstracted,” says O’Reilly of the word-based artworks. O’Reilly gave Elsayed a solo show at the State Museum in 2014, and purchased an Elsayed at auction last year. “We only had one diptych in the collection and I wanted to add another,” she says. The TCNJ exhibit will be the first time it is on view since the purchase.

It is not uncommon for the State Museum to lend work, both individually and as intact shows, to other institutions. An exhibit of the museum’s Toshiko Takaezu holdings traveled to Kean University and the Morris Museum, Horace Pippins were loaned to an exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum, and a William Glackens was loaned for a show at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. “Our (Georgia) O’Keeffes are on the road a lot,” says O’Reilly. “It’s our job to make the collection accessible, and we’ve very happy to have people learn about artistic movements.” The TCNJ exhibit is an opportunity to teach about the range within abstract art, says O’Reilly from her office at the State Museum where, since April, she has served as acting director—it is the third time she has done so in her 28-year tenure at the museum.

It was through former director Eric Pryor that O’Reilly met Ellsworth Ausby (1942-2011), who created stained glass-like abstractions in “A Space Odyssey” for the New York City Subway. Ausby’s paintings were exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Boston Museum of Fine Art; the National Museum of Fine Arts, Lagos Nigeria; and the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut. His “Ra Rising,” on view in Abstract Expressions, has been a visitor favorite at the State Museum.

Although the collection is digitized, O’Reilly likes to look at the actual work when curating so she went through bays and racks, pulling drawers, using criteria such as how recently work has been shown and whether or not the artist is someone viewers need to know more about.

“Richard Anuszkiewicz had not been shown in a long time,” O’Reilly says. “He’s a master of Op Art and geometric abstractions—the art world knows his name but students may not.” Anuszkiewicz studied with grand master of abstraction and color theorist Josef Albers. Other artists O’Reilly hopes to re-introduce to the public are Walter Darby Bannard, Sam Gilliam, John L. Moore and Hiroshi Murata.

How did these works enter the collection? O’Reilly estimates that two or three were acquired during her tenure, then counts seven she was actively involved in acquiring. Acquisitions can be gifts from artists; individual or corporate collectors; or outright purchases. When AT&T offered some of the works from its collection, O’Reilly rediscovered Hopewell artist Susan MacQueen. There are two cast paper works from MacQueen’s 1980s fossil series in Abstract Expressions.

The curator of fine arts attends the auction at Aljira annually. “It’s a good place to find emerging artists at good prices, so my budget can go a long way,” she says. “Even if I don’t buy, it helps to inform me of trends in the art world.”

A native of Dublin, Ireland, O’Reilly’s father worked as a bus driver. “The buses were always on strike, and he couldn’t raise a family on what he made,” she recounts, so they came to the U.S. 50 years ago. Margaret was 3. The family settled in Woodbridge Township, where O’Reilly’s father worked in ramp service for United Airlines. After her two younger sisters, born in the U.S., became teenagers, O’Reilly’s mother went to work part time as a payroll clerk.

Although she always loved to draw and demonstrated talent, “I never imagined that art could be a career,” recounts O’Reilly. “I wanted to be an attorney and I wanted to teach—these were jobs I could understand.”

As an undergraduate at Kean University, O’Reilly began in the education track. Then, one of her teachers suggested she go into the arts. “I never considered this could be OK. I wanted to be a painter but didn’t see the path, and thought my parents would kill me.” She switched to studying graphic design, in which she knew she could get a job, and pursued painting as a grad student at Kean, learning to write code for computer art. She took a job at the State Museum doing graphic design, with the idea that someday she’d move to a big New York design firm. Then Curator of Fine Arts Zoltan Buki took her under his wing and mentored her. “I didn’t realize I was being mentored. He called me one of his ‘young ones.’ We had art fights—he would say that Andy Warhol was overrated and I would say he was underrated. He was grooming me, but I wanted to be a New York designer. He said ‘You like this work more than you think you do,’ and he was right.”

Buki would call on O’Reilly to help with installations. “I thought I was doing manual labor but he was testing my art history, and apparently I passed.” Buki made O’Reilly assistant curator of collection and exhibitions in 1997, then he retired a year later. There were hiring freezes and changes in administration, so O’Reilly worked alongside assistant curator of contemporary New Jersey arts Alison Weld until 2005, when she became curator of fine arts.

O’Reilly learned art history both in courses she took at Kean and reading on her own, going to conferences and exhibitions—she soaks it in like a sponge. “The curatorial world is changing, and more working artists are curators now, approaching it from the impetus of a maker.”

It’s also the company she keeps—most of O’Reilly’s friends are artists, from the late Jim Colavita and his widow, Susan (“they were my closest friends”) to Mel Leipzig, Aubrey Kaufman and Judith K. Brodsky. “The art community was wonderful to me when I was out sick.”

In November, O’Reilly required surgery for breast cancer and was on medical leave for six weeks. Her mother, 77, a breast cancer survivor, moved into O’Reilly’s Lawrenceville home and became caretaker. “She’d watch me sleep,” says O’Reilly. “The first couple of weeks were hard. The hardest moment was seeing my wounds when I showered. My mother helped me get through when she saw my tears. She’d been through it so understood. She didn’t say anything but allowed me to express my feelings, letting me know it’s ok to be emotional. You don’t have to be strong every minute.”

Being stoic is part of the O’Reilly family culture. “My mother and I are the most stoic, but all three girls are tough. We don’t let things get us down, we keep going—tomorrow will be a better day. My father was sick for a long time before he died, but every morning he woke up and said ‘It’s going to be a great day.’”

Recently, O’Reilly has begun to draw again. “It’s been hard to filter out what I see and not create something derivative,” she says. “But I’m picking up a pencil to get the muscle going, even if I don’t show the work. Even if I don’t keep the work, I’m enjoying it. When artists go through grieving, they go to what they know, although it may not be immediate. I think of Grace Graupe Pillard’s series on her mother when she was dying, and how it helped her. Artists are lucky to have an outlet for their feelings.”

In the meantime, as acting director, O’Reilly is busy with budgets and balancing the needs of the museum’s four bureaus, keeping all the balls in the air as she juggles. “I want to grow the collection in a judicious way,” she says. “I look at the gaps. We want to represent the contemporary art world and make sure all the diverse voices are included. You can’t tell the story of American artists without talking about New Jersey. John Marin and Alfred Stieglitz were born in New Jersey. You can’t talk about the Pop artists without New Jersey artist George Segal. The Fluxus Happenings were here in New Jersey. Our state plays a unique role in American art history.”

Over the years, O’Reilly has said repeatedly: “I love my job.”

Abstract Expressions: Selected Works from the New Jersey State Museum is on view January 27 through February 28. Opening reception January 27, 5 to 7 p.m. http://www.tcnj.edu/artgallery

 

 

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