A & E

Modernism from the National Gallery of Art on display at the de Young

Frank Stella, Flin Flon IV, 1969, polymer and fluorescent polymer paint on canvas, 96½ x 96½ in., collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff

“I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality.”
— Barnett Newman

San Franciscans won’t have to wait for the MOMA to reopen to get a taste of modern art. Through Oct. 12, the de Young will feature over 40 post- World War II works from the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff collection in a special exhibition that includes works by Robert Rau-schenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman, Philip Guston, Frank Stella, and others.

These innovative artworks explore the interaction of shape and color, paring down form to its essentials. Traditional narrative and meaning in this genre are often abandoned. Empty space, shadows and light are employed instead of merely the environment surrounding the work. The identity of the art object becomes mysterious by virtue of its simplicity.

Frank Stella’s Flin Flon IV exemplifies the austerity of this era in abstract painting. Intersecting semicircular arcs combine with soft color creating a vibrating interaction of foreground and background that gives the viewer a sense of movement bordering on optical illusion. Ellsworth Kelley’s Orange Green (1966) simplifies form even further by matching the tranquility of two intersecting colors like a sharper edged version of Mark Rothko’s earlier meditative canvases. Moody works by Jasper Johns and Philip Guston provide a certain amount of edgy contrast to the cool composure of Stella’s and Kelley’s minimalism.

The most prominent work in the exhibit, delegated to its own room and space, is Barnett New-man’s The Sta-tions of the Cross (1958–66). A series of 14 paintings, Newman’s Stations indicate the movement of vertical forms on large canvases, black lines that change in shape and texture suggesting a kind of procession or movement of undulating sound.

A work of art is like a word. Considered on its own, it has little context. Taken with other words, it forms a sentence. Meaning is revealed. It’s the same with art. Modernism often removes the familiar context of recognizable imagery. The resulting landscape of form and color gives us as viewers room to dream.

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at