Prisms of Influence: “Slip Zone” at the Dallas Museum of Art

In the exhibition “Slip Zone: A New Look at Postwar Abstraction in the Americas and East Asia” at the Dallas Museum of Art, Jackson Pollock’s 1947 painting Cathedral hangs near a photograph documenting Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga painting with his feet at the “2nd Gutai Art Exhibition” in Tokyo in October 1956. Standing shirtless with his pants rolled up, he almost seems to be dancing on the canvas underfoot, his kick-strokes animated by a sense of bodily struggle. Contrast this photograph with familiar images by Hans Namuth showing Pollock leaning above a paint-spattered canvas on his studio floor. Despite Gutai paintings’ visual similarity and acknowledged homage to Pollock’s works, these photographs clarify some fundamental differences in the artists’ approaches to process and tradition. Pollock crouches over the canvas, preserving its pictorial frame, working around the painting more than acting in it. Shiraga literally uses the surface of the painting itself as a site for uninhibited embodied action, making Pollock appear painterly and restrained by contrast.

Such elaborations on long-held assumptions about the primacy and superiority of (white) American and European abstract art within global modernism are repeated throughout “Slip Zone,” which assembles works not only from Gutai but also from Mono-ha in Japan, Dansaekhwa in Korea, and Neoconcretism in Brazil. The artists behind these movements emerged from distinct cultural contexts whose traditions and concerns suffused their work and, in turn, contributed to an international conversation about the untapped possibilities of material, form, and abstraction. Instead of presenting postwar modernism as a Euro-American export to other parts of the world, “Slip Zone” highlights the remarkably heterogeneous artistic cross-pollination that occurred during this period, both globally and across racial divides within the United States.

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Works by canonical American artists such as Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, and Mark Rothko are indeed included in “Slip Zone,” but their presentation provides passing context more than it enshrines their positions, effectively showing how various artists contributed to distinctly modernist visual styles from vastly different reference points and backgrounds. An uncharacteristically bright Rothko painting, for example, accompanies a Frankenthaler work dominated by similar vermilion hues, visually echoed on the gallery floor in an early latex pour by Lynda Benglis titled Odalisque (Hey, Hey Frankenthaler), 1969. The psychedelic swirls of Benglis’s pour are themselves refracted nearby in Gutai artist Shozo Shimamoto’s 1965 oil painting Untitled – Whirlpool, which implies the influence of traditional Japanese paper marbling techniques such as suminagashi in its amoeba-like rings of overlapping color.

Jack Whitten: Slip Zone, 1971, acrylic on canvas, 39 inches square.

Arrayed with daubed lines of blue pigment rhythmically fading like a stamp losing ink, Korean artist Lee Ufan’s 1978 painting From Point combines repetitious Minimalist techniques with traditional Japanese materials such as nikawa, an animal-skin glue used in silk painting. Ufan’s prioritizing of fundamental material properties as much as Western notions of artistic expression is more dramatically demonstrated in his sculpture Relatum (1968/1969/2011), in which the artist dropped a stone on a plate of glass and left it for display on the broken surface, charged with a frisson of violence amid stillness. Such philosophical explorations of physicality and process-based attempts at “not making” were a hallmark of Mono-ha (or “School of Things”), a movement led by Ufan and Japanese artist Nobuo Sekine.

As part of its ambitious reevaluation of histories of modernism marred by imposed hierarchies and segregation, “Slip Zone” also highlights the under-acknowledged contributions of Black American artists working within various forms of postwar abstraction, including Color Field painting and Minimalism. The exhibition takes its title from a 1971 painting by Jack Whitten with a striated, textured surface that the artist created using implements such as combs and rakes. Suspended on the tallest wall in the exhibition’s central gallery, Leaf (1970)—one of Sam Gilliam’s signature unstretched canvases—majestically expands its painted folds, lending the space a reverent, chapel-like quality. Elsewhere, the triumphant, large-scale paintings Marcia H Travels by Frank Bowling and Intarsia by Ed Clark (both 1970) face each other across a gallery, each emitting its own distinctive, delicate aura through bleeding layers of color—Bowling’s soft and veil-like, Clark’s hard-lined and horizontal. Between them, the alluring cast polyester sculpture Untitled (Parabolic Lens), 1978, by California Light and Space artist Fred Eversley, serves as an energetic prism, alive with soft blue luminosity.

Few artists exemplify the truly intercultural legacy of postwar abstraction as well as Senga Nengudi, who spent a year studying Gutai at Waseda University in Tokyo before returning to the United States to participate in the Black avant-garde movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Using vinyl bags of vividly colored water to explore weight and fluid motion, Nengudi’s early work Water Composition I (1969–70/2019) reveals the direct influence of Gutai artist Sadamasa Motonaga’s 1956 installation Work (Water), in which vinyl sheets filled with dyed water were suspended between trees. Nengudi’s construction also anticipates the formal concerns of her later, best-known works in the “R.S.V.P.” series (1975–77), involving pantyhose tied together, pinned to walls, and weighted with sand. By drawing compelling and precise connections such as these, “Slip Zone” insists on a revised history of abstraction that acknowledges and celebrates the dynamic, multidirectional cultural exchanges to which these artworks attest.


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