John Sennhauser, Organization No.16, 1942, watercolor on paper, Gift of Patricia and Phillip Frost, © 1942 John Sennhauser

John Ferren, Untitled, 1934, watercolor on paper, mounted on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Patricia and Phillip Frost, © 1934, John Ferren.

Rarely Shown Abstract Drawings from the 1930s to the Present

Will Henry Stevens, Untitled (NMG 1,264), about 1945, pastel on paper, Gift of Janet Stevens McDowell, © 1945 Joscelyn W. Hill.

Seong Moy, Spring Song, 1955, brush and ink and ink wash on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist , © 1955 Seong Moy.

Werner Drewes, Confrontation, 1945, ink and gouache on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wolfram U. Drewes,© 1945 Estate of Werner Drewes.

Peter Saul, Untitled (Bathroom), 1961, pastel crayon, and collage on paper, Museum purchase through the Gene Davis Memorial Fund, © 1961 Peter Saul.

Morris Louis, (Untitled D 233a), 1949, pen and ink and brush and ink on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Marcella Brenner, © 1949 Morris Louis.

Gene Davis, Saber Dance, 1952, ink and wash on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Florence Coulson Davis, © 1952 Gene Davis Estate.

Charles Seliger, In Matrimony's Golden Cage, Illustrations to the songs from William Blake's Island in the Moon, 1945 , white ink on black ink onpaper, Gift of Michael Rosenfeld.

Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1952-1953, pastel on paper mounted on canvas, Smithsonian American Art
Museum, Museum purchase from the Vincent Melzac Collection through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, © 2012 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Smithsonian American Art Museum
Eighth and F streets N.W.
Washington, D.C.
Graphic Arts galleries, second floor
Abstract Drawings
June 15-January 6, 2013

Abstract Drawings presents 46 works on paper from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection that are rarely on public display. From simple sketches to finished compositions, these works represent the rich possibilities of abstraction as a mode of artistic expression.

American artists began to experiment with abstraction in the early 20th century. The installation includes works from the 1930s to 2009 by artists such as Joseph Cornell, Gene Davis, Jacob Kainen, Willem de Kooning, Man Ray, Theodore Roszak and Sean Scully.

Most abstract drawings were created as independent works of art in which the artist explored an idea or the relationship of forms and colors, as in Bones (1987) by Andrea Way or Saber Dance (1952) by Davis. In many of the drawings, references to objects, figures or places remain visible, but they have been transformed into compositions that have only a passing resemblance to their source of inspiration, such as Charles Seliger’s1945 series of 14 illustrations for the unfinished satire An Island in the Moon by poet William Blake.

The collages on display in the installation by Cornell were based on Rorschach inkblots that were then transformed into images by the artist’s imagination and deft addition of line. Some of the featured drawings were preparatory for works of art in another medium, such as Al Held’s Untitled (Study for Order/Disorder/Ascension/Descension) (1975), which he created for an enormous two-part mural commissioned for the Social Security building lobby in Philadelphia

The drawings in this exhibition reveal an important segment of the works on paper in the permanent collection of the museum. From simple sketches to highly finished compositions, they represent the rich possibilities of abstraction as a mode of artistic expression.

At the end of his life, Joseph Cornell returned from making object boxes to creating deeply personal and enigmatic drawings reminiscent of Rorschach ink blots, which became very popular in the 1960s as psychological tests.

Beginning with a suggestive drawing in ink on paper, the artist folded the paper so that the wet image transferred to the opposite half of the paper, forming a symmetrical image. He then embellished the drawing with lines or collage elements to create composition, suggested to him by the resulting forms.

Sometimes the image suggested an association from which Cornell derived a title for the work and sometimes he appears to have had a subject in mind before making the image. They say the owl is a baker’s daughter is one of Ophelia’s lines in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It refers to a popular legend in which Christ transforms a baker’s daughter into an owl after she has denied him a piece of bread. The owl, also a symbol of night, death, and virginity, often appears in Cornell’s work.

The female body was a central theme in Willem de Kooning’s paintings of the 1940s and 1950s. At the time Woman, about 1952-1953, was executed, the images from his Women series were becoming increasingly fragmented and chaotic. The inscription at the bottom right, “to dear Ruth with love,” probably refers to the artist’s mistress and muse Ruth Kligman, a well-known art-world socialite about whom de Kooning famously remarked: “She really puts the lead in my pencil.” It is possible that his embrace of the female figure may have taken on new immediacy during this period when he juggled his marriage to Elaine de Kooning, a relationship with Joan Ward, who bore him a child, and an affair with Kligman, who was Jackson Pollock’s mistress shortly before she took up with de Kooning.

Early in her career, while she was married to the sculptor David Smith, Dorothy Dehner made paintings, drawings, and prints. After their divorce in 1952, she too began to make sculpture, producing totemic constructions first in bronze and later in wood. The forms of Monolith, 1965, invoke the solidity of the monumental sculpture, while the intricate cross-hatching that creates the forms reveals the refined drawing skills she developed before she became a sculptor.

American Abstract Artists (AAA) group formed in 1937 with the aim of exhibiting nonobjective art, educating the public, and encouraging dialogue among abstract artists. Among the artists who participated in AAA exhibition and meetings were Burgoyne Diller, John Ferren, Dwinell Grant, and John Sennhauser, who shared an interest in pure geometric form and balance of color.

Diller’s Untitled, 1930, is an example of the artist’s early austere style and interest in spatial relationships. Unable to sell such works during the depression, Diller accepted a position as co-director of the Mural Division of the New York Federal Art Project, Works Progress Administration, where he played an important role in the promotion of abstract art in America. While the public preferred a more readable and realist style, Diller managed to hire abstract artists for several major mural projects, including murals at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940 and the Williamsburg Housing Project.

Claire Falkenstein grew up riding her horse along Coos Bay in Oregon and began incorporating animals into her art at an early age. Though her preferred medium shifted dramatically during her seven-decade career — from painting and drawing to jewelry and monumental sculpture — much of her work retained the sense of motion and interwoven parts that characterize Branding, 1943. In Falkenstein’s vision of cattle branding, close inspection reveals the outline of steers, male figures, a branding iron, hooves, and a fence.

Al Held, Untitled (Study forOrder / Disorder / Ascension / Descension), 1975, is a study for the enormous two-part mural commissioned for the Social Security building lobby in Philadelphia. Each of the final parts of the mural measures 13 feet high and 90 feet wide, and special canvas had to be ordered from weavers in Belgium to accommodate this scale. The artist worked out arrangements of solid and broken lines that suggest volume and perspective. He then transferred the composition to a section of the canvas and added to the sequence of visual components until the entire mural was completed.

Amusement Land, 1956, alludes to California’s blockbuster attraction, Disneyland, which opened in July 1955. The park’s grand opening alone drew more than 15,000 visitors to Anaheim, not far from the Ynez Johnston’s home in Los Angeles. Within the pastel fields of color are references to the park itself, including a body of water, trees, roller coasters, and children’s faces. The red stripes repeated throughout the composition might refer to the sails of the park’s pirate ship. While most of Johnston’s works from the 1950s are obsessively intricate compositions resembling surreal cityscapes, this drawing is highly gestural, loose, and intentionally childlike.

Seong Moy studied Chinese calligraphy and painting in his native city, Canton, China, before emigrating, first to Minnesota in 1931 and subsequently to New York, where he settled and remained. By the time Moy drew Spring Song, 1955, he had begun to spend summers in Provincetown on Cape Cod, and nature became an important subject for him. The gestural brushstrokes, monochrome palette, and use of an ink wash in this drawing indicate that he continued to be influenced by Chinese art well into his career. However, he departed from the Chinese tradition of representing the seasons by depicting recognizable changes in the landscape in favor of a more subjective and abstract interpretation of nature.

Charles Pollock was the oldest and Jackson Pollock the youngest of the five sons of Stella May and Leroy Pollock. Born ten years earlier, Charles was measured, reflective, and patient, while Jackson was impulsive and mercurial. Charles was the first of the two to move to New York from the West and helped convince Jackson to continue his art studies in 1930. When Charles left New York in 1935, moving first to Washington, DC, and then to Michigan, the two brothers did not remain close. Charles drew Aerodynamics, 1947, the same year that Jackson was embarking on the series of “drip” paintings that would catapult him to fame in the New York art world and abroad. The geometric shapes floating in the muted, monochromatic field of this drawing were typical of Charles’s more restrained and cerebral approach to abstraction.

Early in his career, Peter Saul abandoned abstract expressionism in favor of vigorous figuration with vulgar and violent subject matter. He lived in Paris from 1958 to 1962, and reacted against the refinement and pretention of the art world both in Europe and in the United States. He adopted the stance of an intellectual outsider and provocateur, drawing and painting ordinary objects in his apartment — iceboxes, bathroom fixtures, food, knives — with carefree abandon. In this drawing, body parts strewn about and blood-colored water, depicted with cartoonlike spontaneity, create a mood of slapstick violence that characterizes much of his later work.

At 19, Charles Seliger drew the illustrations for songs from the unfinished satire, An Island in the Moon by William Blake (1757-1827), an English poet, painter, and printmaker.

Written around 1785, the manuscript combines classical Greek satire with a critique of one of the intellectual salons of the London bourgeoisie. Each of Seliger’s drawings depicts one or more of the absurdly named characters from Blake’s fictional island, some of whom also represent friends and contemporaries of the author. Suction, the Epicurean, for example, is believed to correspond to Blake’s brother Robert, and Quid, the Cynic refers to Blake himself.

Blake’s song lyrics range from vulgar to menacing to humorous. While Old Corruption is considered an allegory for sin, the song for which Seliger drew O, I Say You Joe, Throw Us the Ball was the first recorded poem to focus on cricket, and English bat-and-ball sport.

Man Ray, Untitled, 1954, brush and ink on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Juliet Man Ray.

Charles Pollock, Aerodynamics, 1947 , ink and gouache on paper , Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Allmendinger, © 1947 Charles Pollock Archive.

Ynez Johnston, Amusement Land, 1956, pastel and ink on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon C. Schild.


Richard Dempsey, Untitled, 1940, pastel on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vonja Kirkland-Dempsey, © 1940 Richard Dempsey.