Exhibitions: Why size does matter for the Americans

The Fitzwilliam's new exhibition charts the development and concerns of four of Abstract Expressionism's successors
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The Independent Culture
Four American Painters

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has bravely mounted an exhibition of near-contemporary painting in its Adeane galleries. Bravely, but not deftly: rather dark rooms are not natural homes for modern art. "" features work by Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Larry Poons. There are some 30 paintings in the show, borrowed from a private collection; enough of them to give a good taste of each artist, but not quite enough to fully explain their development and shared concerns.

About a quarter of a century ago these painters formed a group. Their work was often called "post-painterly abstraction", even though - as it evident from the present exhibition - it was painterly in many ways. The phrase really meant that they belonged to the next generation of non- figurative artists after the collapse, or exhaustion, of Abstract Expressionism. Roughly, the most significant pictures from the Fitzwilliam painters came at the same time as Pop - a development to which they were opposed in almost every way.

Frankenthaler (born 1928) is not the oldest painter in the show, but she has a close feeling for classic Abstract Expressionism. Swan Lake I of 1961 is a moving link between Jackson Pollock (whose studio she had visited as a precocious young artist) and the open, expansive, coloured abstraction of the later 1960s. For all its delicacy of feeling, somewhat concealed by a protective perspex box around the canvas, Swan Lake I is more obviously a grand museum picture than anything else in the Adeane galleries. Its size is magisterial. And then there's the haughty confidence of its improvisation. Frankenthaler used thinned-down oil paint. She must have painted the unstretched canvas on the floor, quite rapidly, and was so certain that she had achieved her picture that much of this canvas was simply left blank.

Indeed, the "swans" of the title are unpainted areas that happen to have a coincidental resemblance to birds. Their depiction could not have been calculated. This may be a nature painting, as Frankenthaler's early works often were, but its goal was abstraction. Here was a mood and an ambition shared by the four painters now in Cambridge. For them, Abstract Expressionism had not been abstract enough. They sought a further purity, aerial and disembodied, with no reference to figuration, or to the metaphors for nature which underlay so much previous American Abstract art.

Kenneth Noland banished metaphor by using the most basic forms, the circle, and by concentrating all his pictorial energy on the most abstract of all the components of painting, which is colour. Just as one enters the exhibition, his Untitled of 1959-60 immediately announces a superb colourist. It's made of 9 or 10 - my eye forgets - concentric circles: red in the middle, which is therefore the smallest area of colour, surrounded by white, then black, then white again, a yellow, a pink, a blue and so on. Such a description sounds straightforward. But its a complex, demanding picture. If you don't believe me, take your own colours into the Fitzwilliam and see if you can reproduce its results - and its conviction.

Noland may not be so sublime an artist as his friend Morris Louis, but his colour has both a wider and a more subtle range. It's more potent than Louis's palette. Noland also makes his first master, Josef Albers, appear arid and theoretical. Although the rivalry was unspoken, at least in public, I think that the artists of "post-painterly abstraction" wished to beat their predecessors. In many ways Noland matched himself against Barnett Newman. Olitski took on Rothko. Poons, after his rather pleasant early period as an Op artist, wished to exceed Clyfford Still. Anthony Caro, a friend of all the artists in the Cambridge show and a sort of honorary American, was inspired by the abstract expressionist sculptor David Smith: yet his intention was to become a greater artist than Smith had been.

The disappointment of the Fitzwilliam exhibition is that such comparisons do not seem relevant. Not one of these painters, except perhaps Frankenthaler, is seen in full and ample power. Olitski suffers most in a show that would have benefited by loans from other British collections. His best work practically always comes when he works on a very large scale. But such examples of his work are not in Cambridge. Noland and Poons are also closest to their vision when they work large. I have seen big Olitski paintings of quite breathtaking beauty. At the Fitzwilliam one gains only a hint of his capacity for expansive loveliness.

Noland's circles, chevrons and lozenge-shaped paintings make the most impression. I fear that some visitors may find this a puzzling show. The artists may be new to Cambridge, but they were extremely amous and successful in the years before 1972 or so, when they underwent a sudden and total eclipse that has no parallel in the history of modern artistic reputation. Were they amongst the very last artists of modernism? A more committed university museum than the Fitzwilliam might have hoped to answer this important historical question. I recommend a new book by the Cambridge painters' most fervent admirer, Michael Fried. His Art and Objecthood (University of Chicago Press, pounds 15.95) reprints his reviews of their work from the 1960s and adds a long autobiographical introduction. Alas, while Fried knows that his kind of modernism ended in defeat he gives no reasons for the ascendancy of art that he generally dislikes.

Cambridge Fitzwilliam Museum (01223 332900), to 8 Nov.