Action painters turned the art world upside down when their big, bewildering canvases began showing up in New York City during the early 1950s.
Dripping, spilling and splashing their way across the surfaces of their paintings, they transformed acts previously thought of as accidents into a new, often controversial and ultimately triumphant kind of art, fusing the movements of their hands with the guiding impulses of the subconscious.
Fifty years later, this pioneering American school has largely fallen from favor among working artists, pushed to the curb by the same biting disrespect for the past that its founders helped establish. Only a few of their heroic canvases are still considered significant enough to deserve the amount of space they consume on the crowded walls of major museums.
Even at the Chrysler Museum of Art, which showcases the holdings of a renowned collector with an influential interest in the school, just three or four works — notably a Jackson Pollock and a Franz Kline — hang in the modern galleries. That's why you have to wonder about — then applaud — the new exhibit of eight other action paintings recently rescued from storage.
Tagged by a visiting consultant during a 2007 assessment of the museum's vast, out-of-sight stockpile, none of these eye-popping rediscoveries has been shown for 20 years, Director William Hennessey says.
But now they seem not only remarkably fresh but also full of evocative connections to the museum's namesake as well as its recently rejiggered modern collection.
"Of all the works in storage, these were the ones that absolutely had to go out," curatorial assistant Cheryl White says. "They not only tell a story about action painting but also about Walter Chrysler and his taste. He really was committed to collecting the art of the moment — and he bought many of these right out of the artist's studio at critical moments in their careers."
With one exception, the works in the show span the years 1954 to 1961, when the bristling kinetic and visionary energy of its practitioners pushed the movement to its zenith.
Though often bunched together in what art historians describe as action painting's second generation, some of the artists on view here — notably Robert Richenburg but also Milton Resnick — developed in close physical, social and artistic proximity to such pioneers as Pollock and Kline, joining in the contentious debates and progressive art shows that emanated from a celebrated downtown New York artists' group known as "The Club."
Richenburg's 1954-55 "Pieta" ranks as the earliest work in the show, and — with his characteristic black background punctuated by slashing strokes of line and color — easily emerges as the most moving and somber.
His sand-textured paints almost seem to clot and clump on the surface after spilling off the bristles of his unorthodox house-painter's brush.
Other, thinner pigments drip down from these thicker passages, enveloping the shadowy, barely perceptible figures of Mary and a reclining Christ in a vibrant veil of what seem to be the whole world's tears.
Not surprisingly, Richenburg served as a combat engineer and explosives expert in World War II, and he created this image as part of a series of so-called "dark" paintings exploring the trauma of his experience and his long-lingering feelings of grief and loss.
Unlike many classical action paintings, Michael Goldberg's "Red Sunday Morning" — completed in 1956 — also depicts something rather than nothing. But in this case the source of inspiration is an otherwise ordinary breakfast of fried eggs served sunny side up.
Goldberg's memories of his many hungry days as an artist add considerably to the energy and gusto with which he depicts himself dining with fellow artist Joan Mitchell. But it's the slashing dance of near-abstract red, yellow, orange, blue, white and — finally — black brush strokes that give his remarkable rendition of this everyday event so much passion and power.
Don't miss Helen Frankenthaler's "Scene with Blue 6," a 1961 painting that extends the visual vocabulary of action painting even further. Soaking and staining her canvas with poured and splattered paint, she also draws her brush across its surface with the loose, flowing hand of a master calligrapher.
News to Use What: "Action Painting in the Chrysler Museum"Where: Chrysler Museum of Art, Olney Road and Mowbray Arch, Norfolk.When: Wednesday-Sunday through April 11Cost: FreeInfo: 664-6200, www.chrysler.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun