By Mary Gow
Brilliant eclipsing circles of Max Bill to Josef Albers’ chromatic nested rectangles to Richard Anuszkiewicz’s almost oscillating Op Art — geometric abstraction is bold, vibrant, and hard-edged. And, as the title of the new exhibition at Shelburne Museum aptly notes, it is also cool.
“Hard-Edge Cool: The Routhier Collection of Mid-Century Prints” opened last weekend in the Murphy Gallery of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education at Shelburne Museum. With more than 50 geometric abstract artworks from the collection of Jason and Dana Routhier, of Northfield, the exhibition spans decades and movements from 1930s modernism to the postmodern era of the 1980s.
From Bauhaus to Op Art, the Routhiers’ collection includes works by luminaries including Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Genevieve Claisse — more than 45 artists altogether. Creative exploration of pure form and color is at the heart of geometric abstraction. As artists delved into this exploration in the 20th century, movements and styles emerged — De Stijl, Hard-Edge, and Op Art among them. Hard-Edge, while descriptive of much of the work in the show, also specifically references an austere abstract style of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Complementing the Routhiers’ collection and transforming the space, a reinterpretation of the 1928 Café L’Aubette wall installation fills the entire back wall of the gallery. The installation meticulously follows the original design specifications for the café’s wall-hung in-relief color blocks. The Café L’Aubette, often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Modern Art, was designed by Theo van Doesburg, Sophie Taeuber Arp, and Jean Arp and served as a multi-purpose community center, including cinema.
A silent film of Albers teaching at Yale and two 1965 clips on Op Art from CBS’s iconic “Eye on New York: The Responsive Eye” are projected on the Shelburne Museum screen, offering insights and opening conversations about this genre.
Along with the artwork and the text about the individual pieces and genres, the exhibition includes comments from the Routhiers about their approach to collecting, thoughts about various pieces, and their focus on this genre. Seeing the works amassed by these contemporary young collectors in this venue offers a lovely connection to the Shelburne Museum’s own origins and history. Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb began her collections, the foundation of the museum, when she was young.
Jason Routhier, a graphic designer, developed an early interest in modern design and began collecting prints and ephemera about 15 years ago. Dana Routhier’s academic background in modernist and avant-garde literature and poetry drew her to abstraction, and in particular to women artists working in this mode.
“We both respond to the fact that much of this art is based on systems as opposed to feelings — the work engages a kind of scientific part of the mind in a lot of ways, in that the work creates questions for itself and then seeks to address those questions from this and that angle,” said Dana Routhier.
“A good example is Josef Albers — much of his work deals specifically with the ways in which color interacts. And that is the point of the work, not the exact form the experiment may take — a square of color A inside a square of color B inside a square of color C,” she noted.
“As both designer and writer, process is very important to each of us. The emphasis for many of the artists we collect is just that — process.” She noted that the artists’ process may explore, “variations on a theme or repetition of a form with gradual refinement of some other aspect of the composition, such as color. There is a thought process unique to each of these artists that is then manifest in their approach to the work — making a grid by Sol LeWitt drastically different than a grid by Agnes Martin. Yet both grids are created with a vigor and clarity of vision by the artist, and for one reason or another, we find that inspiring.”
Shelburne Museum presents “Hard Edge Cool: The Routhier Collection of Mid-Century Prints” Nov. 19-Jan. 22 at its Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, 6000 Shelburne Road in Shelburne. Hours, to Dec. 31, are: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; January: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; admission is $10, $5 for ages 5-17 (under 5 free); call 802-985-3346, or go online to shelburnemuseum.org.
For a video preview of “Hard-Edge Cool,” visit bit.ly/Hard-edge