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American abstracts in spotlight at SFMOMA

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Joan Mitchell’s expressive “Bracket,” a 1989 triptych, is on view in “Approaching American Abstraction,” an exhibition of works from the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Courtesy Ian Reeves/Estate of Joan Mitchell)
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“Approaching American Abstraction,” one of more than a dozen inaugural exhibitions at the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, looks at the explosion of creativity that occurred during abstract art’s heyday in the U.S. around 60 years ago, and at abstraction’s longevity and diversity.

Seventy works from SFMOMA’s Doris and Donald Fisher collection, dating from 1950 into recent decades, are on view.

Postwar abstract expressionism accounts for a substantial portion of the exhibit.

“Polar Stampede” (1960), an imposing work by Lee Krasner, a major figure in the New York School, is a highlight. Made in the years following the death of her husband Jackson Pollock and her mother, the large action painting from her “Umber” series contains vigorous brushwork, somber hues and a turbulent personal energy that sets it apart from the cool, detached pop art of the day.

“Bracket” (1989), a late work by Joan Mitchell, demonstrates an expressive use of color as patches of pink and chartreuse contrast with larger, darker areas of cobalt blue, sienna and emerald green. Spontaneous and passionate exploration occurs in this triptych.

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In Sam Francis’ eye-grabbing “Untitled” (1955-56), bright colors break though a thickness of black, which Francis called the “satanic color from which light emerges, often unexpectedly.”

Ellsworth Kelly is the centerpiece attraction. A favorite of the Fishers, Kelly belonged to no movement. Line, form and color were his means of expression; simplicity distinguished his art. The Kelly section includes reflective works consisting of dual monochromatic canvases, while “Cité” (1951) is a striking black-and-white work in which the artist experimented with elements of chance.

Agnes Martin, though generally considered a minimalist, viewed herself as an abstract expressionist and is represented by seven works on display in an intimate octagonal gallery. Martin created labor-intensive paintings made up of stripes or of grids of tiny rectangles. She described them as visual equivalents of music in their ability to inspire feeling.

Featured contemporary artists include Pat Steir. Her 1990 painting “Waterfall,” with drips and splashes, reflects a Zen-like aim to empty a driving sense of self from the mind. At the same time, her depiction of nature contains a realistic aspect.

In a 1989 bronze sculpture, Joel Shapiro considers the meeting of abstraction and representation. Is this a construction of metal blocks or a figure with extended limbs?

Comprehensive and filling, the exhibition also contains works by Richard Diebenkorn, Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, Frank Stella, Morris Lewis, Martin Puryear, and Mark di Suvero, among others.

IF YOU GO

Approaching American Abstraction
Where: Fourth floor, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (until 9 p.m. Thursdays), through Labor Day
Admission: $19 to $25; free for ages 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

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