Outside of avant-garde artistic circles, the founding of The Abstract Group in Pittsburgh in late 1944 was met with something less than fanfare.
In an article contemporary to his “Pittsburghesque” column, popular Post-Gazette columnist Charles F. Danver noted the founding of the group. 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 girl or something like that in my photos. ”
Yet despite such rejections, The Abstract Group thrived, endured – and helped bring non-figurative art into the American mainstream while making Pittsburgh a hotbed of abstraction.
Its history is celebrated in “Group A: Legacy”, the first exhibition dedicated to the early years of The Abstract Group, from its founding to 1969. (The collective survives to this day as Group A, the name it has adopted that year, and from which the new exhibition takes its title.) The exhibition, at the Christine Frechard Gallery in Lawrenceville, includes 42 paintings, sculptures, prints and more than 24 artists.
The abstract group had a solid pedigree. It was founded by four distinguished educators from what was then called Carnegie Tech: Samuel Rosenberg, Russell Twiggs, Robert Lepper and Balcomb Greene. Abstract art has flourished for decades in Europe, but not so much in the United States.
“The artists who started this in the 1940s were really against the grain,” said current Group A chairman Jean McClung, who co-hosted the show with independent curator Vicky Clark.
Conservatism has gone beyond Pittsburgh. “The Pittsburgh critics and the public did not accept it. They just thought it was crazy stuff, ”Clark said. “But it was also happening in New York. Critics did not understand the abstraction.
Rosenberg was a painter previously famous for his grainy depictions of street life in neighborhoods such as the Hill District. Lepper taught industrial design, and he and Rosenberg are remembered as teachers to young Andy Warhola, who studied at Tech from ’45 to ’49. Greene co-founded American Abstract Artists in New York City before moving to Pittsburgh. Twiggs may have been the first abstract artist to work in Pittsburgh, McClung said.
Under the aegis of The Abstract Group, the artists came together to criticize each other. At one point, McClung said, the group typically had a few dozen members. They sought out exhibits at institutions like the Carnegie Museum of Art, which early on relegated abstract pieces to their own separate room (in case visitors want to ignore them altogether, McClung said). And they organized their own exhibitions: In 1945, The Group was one of the 10 founding organizations of the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center in Shadyside, later known as the Pittsburgh Arts Center.
“It shows a lot about Pittsburgh, that it was an extremely sophisticated group of artists with connections all over the East Coast,” McClung said. “Pittsburgh was a real hotbed of creativity in those days, doing a lot of really exciting things.”
“I think this is the best time for art [at the college], and actually in town, ”said Clark, who is one of Pittsburgh’s top independent curators.
Since its inception, the group – which originally met on the attic-shaped third floor of the Arts and Crafts Center – had included more women than was typical at the time. McClung credits much of the credit to Rosenberg, whose art classes at Hill and Squirrel Hill have created strong ties to the community and expanded the city’s talent pool.
“Group A: Legacy” includes everything from Lepper’s angular modernist aluminum sculptures from the 1960s to Elizabeth Asche Douglas’s “Inferno” (1951), a fiery-toned gouache and acrylic painting, and even the automated plexiglass sculpture by Aaronel Roy deGruber, kicky and cubic.
Most of the artists on display are deceased, but Douglas, 91, is still working, as is Thad Mosely, 95; Eva Lu Damianos, 86; and Syl Damianos, 87 years old. Gloria Stoll Karn, 97, attended the show’s opening reception but is no longer producing any work, McClung said. (Before coming to Pittsburgh, New York native Stoll Karn had a successful career illustrating the covers of pulp magazines.)
McClung also pointed out that all works are on loan from more than a dozen private collections, testifying to the importance of these collections for the history of art.
McClung said that the abstract group was renamed Group A in 1969 because its members were more interested in experimentation in general than in abstraction per se. The group, which still organizes exhibitions, has around 85 members.
“Group A: Legacy” is actually the long-delayed final installment in a series of exhibitions marking the 75e anniversary, which debuted in 2019. This show was delayed, of course, by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Group A: Legacy” continues until Tuesday, August 10. More information is here.