Hip to Be Square

A new exhibition celebrates the cool movement that saw geometry inspire high art



John McLaughlin, Untitled (1963), lithograph, Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Los Angeles, collection of Palm Springs Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin B. Smith

Palm Springs Art Museum

Simple shapes; optical illusions; and the bright, colorful legacy of modernism — that is, geometric abstraction — look as fresh as ever in an exhibition of paintings, drawings, and prints opening July 16 at Palm Springs Art Museum.

Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, the works in “Blast From the Past: 60s and 70s Geometric Abstractions” span several movements, including Minimalism, Op Art, and Hard Edge, as well as geographical boundaries beyond the United States, particularly Europe and Latin America.

Often influenced by Cubist collages by Picasso and Braque and largely reacting to emotionally charged Abstract Expressionism, artists working in a geometric vocabulary sought the essences of materials and forms in an effort to reveal universal truths. The works have definite structure, built with color and reflecting precision in organization and execution. The artists were interested in space and order.

Some works, such as the Ellsworth Kelly lithograph “Green/Black” (1972) and the Piero Dorazio oil “Colorando” (1967), take a relatively lyrical approach to forms and colors, while others, such as Jesus Rafael Soto’s 1969 wood-and-metal wall relief “Cuatro Modulaciones” (“Four Modulations”) and graphics by a range of artists from Josef Albers to Omar Rayo, prove more faithful to the grid.

Soto, a Venezuelan, was among the most influential figures in Programmed Art, better known as Op Art, represented in this exhibition by Victor Vasarely, Yaacov Agam, Arthur Secunda, and others. Op Art, which plays in the sphere of perception, shimmers with the optical effects of patterns and adjacent colors. They appear to move rhythmically and even float off the surface.

California Hard Edge and Minimalism are well represented by a classic stripe painting by Karl Benjamin, a wonderfully balanced oil-on-resin board work by Fletcher Benton, and a sublime untitled lithograph by John McLaughlin.

Benjamin, McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson, and Frederick Hammersley pioneered Hard Edge painting, a term coined in 1959 by the art historian and critic Jules Langsner, who brought the artists together for the seminal Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition “Four Abstract Classicists.” An example of Feitelson’s work appears in “Blast From the Past,” as does a work by his wife, Helen Lundeberg, whose geometry took its cues from the landscape.

Ultimately, viewers will marvel at how artists from disparate parts of the world — most unaware of the others — propelled geometric abstraction to great heights. Exhibitions like “Blast From the Past” ensure the exploration continues with contemporary artists, such as Tim Bavington and Patrick Wilson.

“Blast From the Past: 60s and 70s Geometric Abstractions” continues through Dec. 23. Visit www.psmuseum.org

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