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Arts, Sports & Culture

In The Abstract: Exhibit Celebrates The Historic Arrival Of Abstract Art In Pittsburgh

Outside avant-garde artistic circles, the creation of The Abstract Group, in Pittsburgh, in late 1944, was greeted with something less than fanfare.

In a contemporaneous installment of his column “Pittsburghesque,” the popular Post-Gazette columnist Charles F. Danver noted the group’s founding. But he characterized abstract work as “[p]aintings … that don’t mean anything except to another artist,” and added, “I like to recognize a cow or a pretty gal or something like that in my pictures.”

thumbnail_Robert Lepper (1906-1991) Samothrace, 1960s, Aluminum higher res.jpeg.jpg
Works by Robert Lepper include this circa-1960s aluminum sculpture, "Samothrace."

Yet despite such dismissals, The Abstract Group thrived, lasted — and helped bring nonrepresentational art to the American mainstream while making Pittsburgh a hotbed of abstraction.

Its history is celebrated in “Group A: Legacy,” the first exhibit to focus on The Abstract Group’s early years, from its founding through 1969. (The collective survives to this day as Group A, the name it adopted that year, and from which the new exhibit takes its title.) The show, at Lawrenceville’s Christine Frechard Gallery, includes 42 paintings, sculptures, prints and more by 24 artists.

The Abstract Group had a sterling pedigree. It was founded by four distinguished educators at what was then called Carnegie Tech: Samuel Rosenberg, Russell Twiggs, Robert Lepper and Balcomb Greene. Abstract art had flourished for decades in Europe, but in the U.S., not so much.

“The artists who started this in the ’40s were really against the tide,” said current Group A president Jean McClung, who co-curated the exhibit with independent curator Vicky Clark.

The conservatism went beyond Pittsburgh. “The critics in Pittsburgh and the public did not accept it. They just thought it was crazy stuff,” said Clark. “But that was happening in New York too. The critics didn’t understand abstraction.”

Rosenberg was a painter previously celebrated for his gritty depictions of street life in neighborhoods including the Hill District. Lepper taught industrial design, and both he and Rosenberg are remembered as teachers of the young Andy Warhola, who studied at Tech from ’45 to ’49. Greene had co-founded American Abstract Artists in New York City before moving to Pittsburgh. Twiggs might have been the first abstract artist working in Pittsburgh, said McClung.

thumbnail_Elizabeth Asche Douglas (1930- ) Inferno, 1951, Gouache and Acryclic.jpg
"Inferno" is a painting by Elizabeth Asche Douglas.

Under the aegis of The Abstract Group, artists met to critique each other’s work. At any given time, said McClung, the group usually had a couple dozen members. They sought exhibitions at institutions like the Carnegie Museum of Art, which early on relegated abstract pieces to their own separate room (in case visitors wanted to skip them altogether, said McClung). And they staged their own exhibits: In 1945, The Group was one of the 10 founding organizations of The Arts and Crafts Center of Pittsburgh, in Shadyside, later known as Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

“It shows a lot about Pittsburgh, that this was an extremely sophisticated group of artists with connections all over the East Coast,” said McClung. “Pittsburgh was a real hotbed of creativity in that time period doing a lot of really exciting things.”

“I think it’s the best period at art [at the college], and actually in the city,” said Clark, who’s one of Pittsburgh’s top independent curators.

From its inception, the group — which originally met on the Arts and Crafts Center’s garret-like third floor — included more women than was typical at the time. McClung largely credits Rosenberg, whose art classes in the Hill and Squirrel Hill created strong ties to the community and broadened the city’s pool of talent.

“Group A: Legacy” includes everything from Lepper’s angular modernist aluminum sculptures, from the ’60s, to Elizabeth Asche Douglas’ “Inferno” (1951), a fire-toned painting in gouache and acryclic, and even Aaronel Roy deGruber’s automated Plexiglas sculpture, kicky and cubic.

Most of the exhibited artists are deceased, but Douglas, 91, is still working, as are Thad Mosely, 95; Eva Lu Damianos, 86; Syl Damianos, 87, and Rochelle Blumenfeld, 85. Gloria Stoll Karn, 97, attended the show’s opening reception but is no longer producing work, said McClung. (Before coming to Pittsburgh, Stoll Karn, a native of New York City, had a successful career illustrating the covers of pulp magazines.)

McClung also emphasized that all of the work is on loan from more than a dozen private collections, which speaks to the importance of such collections to art history.

McClung said The Abstract Group was renamed Group A in 1969 because its members had become more interested in experimentation in general that abstraction per se. The group, which still stages exhibits, has about 85 members.

“Group A: Legacy” is actually the long-delayed final installment in a series of exhibits marking The Abstract Group’s 75th anniversary, which began in 2019. This show was delayed, of course, by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Group A: Legacy” continues through Tue., Aug. 10. More information is here.