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Parts of Kemper's collection given deserved, thoughtful display

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2010 - Preparing for its major fall season opener, the Rivane Neuenschwander survey, the Kemper Art Museum is playing out the summer with “Gesture, Scrape, Combine, Calculate: Postwar Abstraction from the Permanent Collection.” 

But this show is anything but a placeholder in the exhibition schedule. It’s a solid survey of mid-century modern painting and sculpture that reveals some surprises and reminds us of the excellent quality of the Kemper’s collection.

Several of the works depart from what we have come to expect of these artists. John McCracken’s “Mandala VI” (1972) is target-style arrangement of circles on canvas, evoking Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella or Jasper Johns; the artist is better known for making minimalist planks that lean against the wall.

Allan McCollum’s “Pam Beale” (1971) engages themes of repetition, singularity, and difference that the artist pursues in more recent sculpture, but it’s a wall piece made of strips of torn and stained canvas. “Pam Beale” actually recalls the sewn and distressed burlap works of Italian artist Alberto Burri, and here curator Meredith Malone has cannily paired it with a Burri — but one made of sheets of rolled iron, rather than fabric.

Another inspired passage in the exhibition is a sequence of paintings by Roberto Matta, Arshile Gorky, Richard Diebenkorn and Grace Hartigan, which makes for a mini-lesson in Abstract Expressionism, its roots and its legacy.

The modestly scaled exhibition also features works by Eduardo Chillida, Antoni Tapies, Gene Davis, Jules Olitski, John Chamberlain, Max Bill, Ibram Lassaw and Anne Truitt.

Ivy Cooper, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the Beacon art critic.