Dark Visions: Mid-Century Macabre

“No matter one’s station in life, the Dance with Death unites us all.” —Anonymous, late medieval allegory

Lurking on the fringes of the 20th-century art world was something sinister, something not necessarily identifiable or easy to fit into a specific movement such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art or Minimalism. The exhibition Dark Visions: Mid-Century Macabre looks to mine the dark recesses of the mid-20th century and explore the creations made to exorcise the demons that plagued artists.

Artists have turned to a multitude of mediums in order to express their anxieties, but more often than not, these works hold similar characteristics. Drab and muted blacks and browns make up the majority of these colorless palettes. Space is restricted, and figures and forms regularly find themselves in boxes, or boxes themselves are represented. Within these boxes, a convoluted and complex chaos writhes and struggles to overcome the confines of the frame.

Dark Visions approaches this sinister subject through the lenses of assemblage, painting and lithography, with works by Edward Kienholz, Joseph Cornell, Clare Falkenstein and Jess, among others. The earliest example in the exhibition is a closed box by Kurt Schwitters. Although not from the mid-century, Schwitters’s Lust Murder Box No. 2 from 1920–22 points to the later fascination with the macabre.

Schwitters, wanting to rely on a look that resembled his collages, hired master wood craftsman Albert Schulze to make a small box using intarsia. This wood veneer inlay technique allowed the box to link to Schwitters’s abstract collages and the constructed overlaid forms of architecture in his Merzbau studio. According to Kate Steinitz, an early collaborator with Schwitters and donor of the Lust Murder Box to the Museum, the title is based on a damaged plaster figure that once lay in the box and was daubed with lipstick to make it look “bloody.” SHOW MORE

Using more traditional materials, Jack Stuck envisions himself as a silhouetted profile strapped into a gas chamber chair in Self-Portrait from 1960–61. The viewer voyeuristically looks in through one of the portholes of the chamber to see the artist calmly awaiting execution. Stuck does not rely on an overflow of materials to impart a sinister feel. The flat handling of the paint and the faint pencil lines lend a disquieting sense of foreboding.

A more viscerally vicious act is depicted in the lithograph Combat from 1965, by Leon Golub. Here, two forms are intertwined in violence, as one combatant raises a fist over the other. The bold, slashing lines lend themselves to the frenetic pace and anxiety of the physical confrontation—so much so, that there is no delineation between one assailant and the other in this struggle for power. Golub does not hide anything from viewers; he puts this clash between two bodies front and center, so that viewers are forced to confront their own fears of brutality.

Through multiple examples of assemblage, painting and lithography, Dark Visions: Mid-Century Macabre illustrates the ways in which artists have portrayed humankind’s struggle to come to terms with death and life’s evils—whether through catharsis, psychosis, or a portrayal of horrors. SHOW LESS