A Review of AbEx at the AGO

By Aaron Boehlert

This weekend, I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario to check out the Abstract Expressionist (AbEx) retrospective, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2004, the AGO underwent a massive renovation/expansion, spearheaded by renowned Canadian architect Frank Gehry, and called TransformationAGO. The finished product is absolutely beautiful, with abundant natural light and spacious galleries. However, the AGO has not seen any exhibits of the relative artistic importance of AbEx since its renovation.

Needless to say, I was extremely excited to see the works of Rothko, Pollock, Krasner, among others, in this ethereal space. However, when I arrived on Sunday afternoon and walked up that fantastic staircase in the atrium, I was underwhelmed. The exhibit was hosted in a series of disjointed rooms of dissimilar sizes, some works crowded practically atop others, fighting for space on the white walls. ‘Room 6’, for instance, featured about a dozen Jackson Pollocks, the significance of which as part of a retrospective were lost due to their too-close proximity to one another. The exhibition was mounted somewhat awkwardly on the second floor and not, as I had expected, near the bright Galleria Italia, whose light would have certainly done the works justice and evoked the light in which they were painted.

The paintings themselves were absolute gems, for the most part. Some highlights included an enigmatic Joan Mitchell, alone on a wall, some provocative Rothkos, and some unexpected pieces by Lee Krasner, the wife of Jackson Pollock. Overall, the retrospective is worth seeing, though I think the AGO would do better, in the future, to relocate the works of ‘Canadian Masters’ to the back galleries, letting important retrospectives like these take advantage of the front space’s great natural light.