Some look at the canvases and see smeared blobs of tomato sauce, a preschooler's fingerpainting or what's left after a seagull hits your windshield. But for David Acton, the exhibit of abstract expressionist prints at the Worcester Art Museum captures a "special moment" when artists set free their subconscious impulses in spontaneous bursts of creativity.
Some look at the canvases and see smeared blobs of tomato sauce, a preschooler's fingerpainting or what's left after a seagull hits your windshield.
But for David Acton, the exhibit of abstract expressionist prints at the Worcester Art Museum captures a "special moment" when artists set free their subconscious impulses in spontaneous bursts of creativity.
Simply titled "Abstract Expressionist Prints," this show organized by Acton features 38 varied works by 37 artists whose range of styles and techniques reflects the breadth of a post-World War II movement that shaped American art for 50 years. It runs through March 16.
Ambitious yet accessible, this exhibit peels away the gloss and hype of a misunderstood, sometimes reviled style without reducing it to a textbook definition. If you hate swirling, gooey abstract paintings without beaches, barns or Norman Rockwell nostalgia, Acton has put together a show that will make you look again with fresh eyes.
It features striking prints by giants of the era, including Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and Claire Frankenthaler, as well as memorable works by lesser-known artists such as Roy De Forest and Edith Posel.
Drawn from WAM's collection, the exhibit showcases artists as diverse as Grace Hartigan, Hedda Sterne, Alexander Liberman, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell and Milton Resnick, whose works have never been shown together in Worcester.
WAM's curator of prints, drawings and photographs, Acton said, "These works represent a primarily American special moment that conveys a unique outlook on life. Visitors will see works which reveal the artist's personality in a style that reflects their use of the medium."
With roots reaching back to European surrealism, abstract expressionism blossomed in New York as a post-war reaction against years of emotional privation, enforced discipline and new nuclear age anxieties.
Freed from the lockstep conformism of the war effort, artists experimented with a liberating style that encouraged them, Acton said, "to represent their own unique personality and psychological state" in their works.
Rather than replicate reality like earlier landscape painters or reduce the world to ephemeral impressions of light and color, Jackson Pollock was among the first to erupt like a volcano, spewing forms and colors that used his own state of mind as his very best subject.
Over the next two decades, the movement, rather improperly defined as Abstract Impressionism, came to include American surrealism, biomorphism that used organic forms in new ways, calligraphy and gestural painting to shift artists' emphasis from nature and society to their own interior landscapes.
Like a scalpel, the painter's brush became an instrument of psychic exorcism by recording the current of personal feelings that felt absolutely true for that moment.
Citing the "gestural" act as a starting point, Acton said abstract expressionists sought to "create an image that leaves a legible record of a brush or crayon stroke which represents the artist's unique personality or psychological state."
Like calligraphy, gestural painting was an act of bold self-expression like saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker pouring raw feelings into an improvised jazz piece.
With various media at their disposal, artists in this show employed different printmaking techniques including miniature drypoints, lithographs and etching.
Acton said abstract expressionists weren't seeking chaos but hoped to make art on their own terms.
Though valuing spontaneity, they weren't just throwing paint at a wall. They carefully organized their work to utilize form, composition, line and color to engage viewers in new ways, he said. Like Parker blowing a new version of "Ornithology," the amoebic blue splashes in Sam Francis' mesmerizing "Coldest Stone" froze a fleeting moment in his psyche on canvas like a butterfly stuck on a pin.
Looking around the gallery at works by artists as different as Sam Glankoff and Clinton Hill, Acton said despite their differences each created "a visual expression of their ideas and feelings at that moment."
Influenced by jazz and psychiatry, a generation of rebellious artists transformed their studios into battlefields where they waged artistic war on complacency, conformity and constraint.
Louise Nevelson incorporated lace doilies, scraps of cheesecloth and screen fragments into distinctive lithographs. As if playing paintball, Pollock splattered his canvases with globs of impasto, broken glass and sand.
Ray Parker depicted a snatch of bebop into Matisse-like bursts of colors.
Acton said this show, which follows the comprehensive 2001 "Stamp of Impulse" exhibit, confirms WAM as the preeminent American museum collecting the best of these works.
Rather than attempt a definitive survey of a school that defies easy categorization, he has brought together a digestible sampling that will help viewers understand the origins of abstract expressionism and its legacy.
"These artists are trying to tap into the creativity of their subconscious minds," he said. "These works are unique records of their own creation."
The Worcester Art Museum is located at 55 Salisbury St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. the third Thursday of every month; and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Museum admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and full-time students with current ID; and museum members and children under 17 are free.
Admission is free Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon.
For more information, call 508-799-4406 or visit WAM's Web site at www.worcesterart.org.