If the name Preston H. Haskell is familiar to U.S. 1 readers, it is most likely because Haskell — Princeton University Class of 1960 — endowed the University Art Museum position of curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, currently held by Kelly Baum.

Haskell — Haskell III, actually — is founder and chairman of the Haskell Company, the largest privately held construction company in Florida and a top design/build firm in the United States.

More to the point, Haskell is a longstanding benefactor of the Princeton University Art Museum and a former chairman of its advisory council. He and his wife, Joan, are collectors with a special interest in abstract art. “Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting,” on view through Saturday, October 5, is drawn from their collection. A conversation and booksigning with Haskell takes place Friday, May 30.

The exhibition, from both their personal holdings and those of the Haskell Company, include works by influential artists Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Jean Dubuffet, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko, and Frank Stella (Princeton University, Class of 1958).

“The works were assembled both for personal pleasure and in order to stimulate and energize the human mind and spirit by building one of the nation’s most arresting, if largely unheralded, corporate collections,” says a statement from the museum.

The Haskells began collecting in the 1980s, hoping to model creativity and be inspirational to their fledgling company. “Preston started to build the collection to inspire thinking more broadly about creativity,” says Baum.

Haskell began his collection with the artist John McIver of Jacksonville, Florida. This connected him to dealers in New York and to acquiring work by Jack Goldstein, a one-time student of innovative American artist John Baldessari. Goldstein moved to New York in 1974, where he achieved critical acclaim for his films, performances, and records, as well as experiments in minimalist sculpture, and became part of the “Pictures Generation” — a group that addressed the role of cinematic, photographic, and televisual images.

“Everything is mediated,” Goldstein stated in 2001, as recounted in the catalog accompanying the exhibition. “One must rely upon the newspaper or the TV or a picture of something else to get to the real thing.”

The exhibition comes on the heels of a major abstraction exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last year. Is there a renewed interest in abstract art?

“There is,” says Baum. “And it has to do with contemporary art. Abstract art is front and center, as artists are thinking about what it means to create abstract art in the 21st century, referencing works by Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly as source material. Art history is returning to a better understanding of where contemporary artists have led us. Painting and abstraction never die, they evolve.”

Not coincidentally, last year’s MOMA exhibit was curated by Baum’s University of Delaware dissertation advisor, Leah Dickerman. “She’s had a profound impact on how I practice art history,” says Baum.

But besides following a theme of audience interest, the exhibition represents the first of more to come that will showcase the collection of the museum’s most dedicated donors, says Baum. “Preston is a natural first partner — he’s been a passionate champion of the university, and he’s making a personal sacrifice by letting the collection leave his house. It wasn’t in storage but on the walls of his home and office, and there are now 27 holes (where the 27 works by 23 artists were) on his walls.”

Baum derived her curatorial concept from the collection itself. “Preston is interested in gestural painting, where the signs of the artist’s hand features prominently,” she says. The curatorial narrative highlights the evolution of abstract painting from 1950 to 1990 and argues that the evolution of abstract art is through technique, process, and mark making.

“Mark making is the painterly handwriting through which we can deconstruct the work,” Baum continues. “How was the paint applied? With brushes, palette knives, airbrush, solvents, fingers? How would you describe the unique painterly handwriting, and what does it tell us about abstract painting and its priorities?”

The story that can be told through the Haskell collection is the history of abstract art through technique and process. To show the distinctive quality of an artist’s handwriting and why it is so important, each label has embedded in it a photo of the artist at work, showing how the painting is made.

During this postwar period, 1950 to 1990, there was extraordinary creative ferment, as artists experimented with technique, and altered technique to keep abstract painting up to date and contemporary. “Process is important,” says Baum. “Artists create meaning through technique, but technique is also meaningful.”

Richter, for example, applies paint with squeegees, Paul Jenkins pours acrylic paint from a trash can, and Helen Frankenthaler applied paint with rags, mops, sponges, windshield wipers, and, ultimately, by staining unprimed canvas to create her hallmark flatness.

“When interpreting a painting, you can start with the subject matter, the artist biography, the composition, form, and structure,” says Baum. “I’ve designated technique as my primary interpretive tool here, to create a coherent narrative without forcing paintings together that don’t necessarily relate to one another.”

Gesture is a specific kind of mark-making, she says. Hans Hofmann and Mark Rothko wanted their marks to be visual so you’d know how their paintings were made — the brush was an extension of the arm, the heart, and the soul. Goldstein wants to erase the marks, and is interested in how to get paint on canvas without it looking like it was done by a human hand.

“Preston was there in the trenches in the 1980s,” continues Baum. “The collection became more gestural over time — that is his sweet spot. He feels a chemistry with the gestural artists. Frank Stella was not a gestural artist, but Preston admires the breadth and variety of his output, and in fact is still collecting Stella.”

Deriving from the Latin term comportment, gesture indicates how we comport ourselves in space, how we move our bodies to gesture. “Gesticulating on canvas is communicating in a passionate, urgent, committed way,” says Baum. By the 1960s, mark-making was seen as too narcissistic so artists depersonalized and demoted gesture.

For Frankenthaler, staining was a way to extricate herself from mark-making, putting paint on canvas without using her hands, but her canvases still have abstract expressionist flair.

An important part of the history of abstraction, says Baum, is that it sometimes diverges and intersects with mimetic, or representational, art. “But the story of abstract art is much messier than art history will allow,” she says. Whereas Rothko was wedded to abstraction, de Kooning and Richter went back and forth. De Kooning was criticized for doing both, and he argued that critics should not prescribe what an artist should do.

While abstraction was invented in the first half of the 20th century, it was after World War II that the center of the modern art world shifted from Paris to New York. The rise of Nazism sent artists fleeing west, and the avant-garde and surrealists, including Duchamp, all wound up in New York, introducing young American painters associated with regionalism, murals, and the WPA to the concept of the unconscious.

“Emigres from Russia and Poland invented a new language around abstraction,” Baum says. “It was developed and refined in the U.S. in response to the historical trauma of the war, the holocaust, Hiroshima. In their statements, (Jackson) Pollock, Rothko and (Barnett) Newman said you can’t make the same kind of art as before in a world that has seen the holocaust and the atom bomb — we need to reinvent art for this period. And that was the birth of Abstract Expressionism.

“I don’t like to call it the post-war period,” Baum continues, “because artists are continually working under conditions of war. This period was punctuated by the Korean and Vietnam wars. They are expressing universal ideas about love, death and trauma, registering their psyches on canvas with every dab of paint.”

Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell, Princeton University Art Museum. Through Sunday, October 5, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free.

Book Signing, McCormick 101. Friday, May 30, 2:30 p.m. Kelly Baum, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Preston H. Haskell will sign copies of “Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell.”

Conversation with Preston H. Haskell, McCormick 101. Friday, May 30, 3 p.m. “Collecting Abstraction” conducted by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and art critic Mark Stevens ‘73 and focusing on collecting modern and contemporary art.

www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.

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