UMMA's "Exercising the Eye" shows how Gertrude Kasle expanded the Midwest art scene in the 1950s


Grace Hartigan, Fells Point Florist painting

Grace Hartigan, Fells Point Florist, 1982, oil on canvas. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Bequest of Gertrude Kasle, 2016/2.90. © The Grace Hartigan Estate.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art’s exhibition Exercising the Eye: The Gertrude Kasle Collection presents an array of works by influential artists of the 20th century. Many of these artists, as pointed out by the exhibition organizers, were, in part, brought to prominence in the Midwest by Gertrude Kasle’s (1917-2016) promotion of their works. 

UMMA suggests Kasle’s “guiding philosophy as a gallerist was to expose Detroit audiences to the kind of avant-garde art she experienced growing up in New York City.” Instead of viewing the gallery solely as a marketplace, Kasle is quoted as having said in a 1977 interview: “I really thought of the gallery as an educational institution.”

After moving to Detroit in 1948, Kasle became involved with the Detroit Institute of Art and eventually worked as the vice president of the DIA’s Friends of Modern Art group. In the wall text for the exhibition, assistant curator of photography Jennifer M. Friess and associate curator of Western art, Lehti Mairike Keelmann suggest Kasle's “educational mission” was enhanced by “lectures and conversations with artists -- a progressive approach … at that time.”

Kasle’s influence on the Abstract Expressionist movement’s embrace in the Midwest was immense. UMMA director Christina Olsen says "New ideas need an ecosystem to thrive in, and she helped develop that ecosystem in Detroit and the Midwest.” Kasle influenced and promoted art in her gallery, prominent in the area after its opening in the Fisher Building in 1965 and continuing through the early 1970s. Though the gallery was open only for 11 years, Kasle continued in her involvement with art in Detroit, and later in Florida in her retirement. She also influenced the private collection of UMMA in her bequest. In addition, some of the works on display belong to Kasle’s children. Some of the works in the show include personal notes to Kasle or resided in her home during her lifetime. 

UMMA points out the importance of Kasle’s influence, particularly because she was a woman, often promoting women artists during a time in which this was unfortunately not a mainstream practice:

Women artists feature prominently as a testament to Kasle's role as a female gallerist committed to advocating for art that broke with tradition. Artists represented in the show include Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Jane Hammond, Grace Hartigan, Michele Oka Doner, Morris Brose and Philip Guston.

While UMMA acknowledges the fame of the male artists and big names of art history such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, whose works engaged directly with established art historical narratives and contemporary “pop” imagery, we also see the names of women artists such as Jane Hammond whose works are, and were, strong and influential in their own right. The exhibition is thoroughly researched with accompanying wall text describing each artists’ work and connection to Kasle. Like the abstract expressionist movement itself, the works are varied, representing lithographic prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and mixed media. 

Jasper Johns, Savarin print

Kasle was able to recognize the value of the Abstract Expressionists before they were undoubtedly accepted into the mainstream art world. At the time she began collecting, these now iconic names were relatively unknown, just as their approach was unconventional and radical. The wall text for Jasper Johns’s works emphasizes this, suggesting Kasle’s involvement with the print studio Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) was a catalyst in her ability to bring new, exciting works from avant-garde artists in New York City.

Due to the affordability of the prints (they could be produced in a limited series, allowing more to be sold at a lower cost), Kasle was able to bring some of the most prominent abstract artists’ works to the Midwest. The works in the gallery by Johns are “interrogations” into the “concept of what constitutes high art.” He does this through his use of everyday objects in his works, evident in the selections for this exhibit, most of which are prints featuring cans of paint, paint brushes, and partially abstracted designs, one even including a fragment of his iconic American flag motif. 

Grace Hartigan’s work is also featured prominently in the gallery. The wall text accompanying her work points out that she was one of the few women to initially gain fame in the Abstract Expressionist movement during the 1950s and 60s. The text expands upon her style and approach, suggesting “she often broke with the strictly abstract approach of her peers … She wove together references to poetry, art history, and contemporary life.”

Like Johns, and many other artists working during this time, Hartigan embraced the quotidian, altering it and abstracting it, creating a new dialogue about the means by which art is produced and consumed. Her large-scale color paintings are certainly attention-grabbing; in fact, one of the first works I noticed upon entering the gallery was Hartigan’s. As suggested by UMMA curators, though her work includes figurative references, it can be read mostly as abstract. The human figures often appear floating in a disjointed plane of color washes and paint splatters. Then, in her work Fells Point Florist, Hartigan embraces the figurative in the style of Matisse, a noted influence on her work, and represents a stylized, obscured window scene, with an overlay of thin paint that appears to have dried dripping down the canvas as it dried. 

Jane Hammond’s piece The Wonderfulness of Downtown, one of my personal favorites, depicts a map of an island-city, its geometric grid interrupted by photographs that appear pasted to its surface. This floats on a blue background, ships and a compass adorning the lower half of the work. On the right side of the frame, a figure in a knight’s armor and high boots stands with a spear. This figure was once, presumably, a male. The image connotes colonization and the conquering of the “New World,” but the figure’s head has been replaced with a woman’s head, presumably the artists’. UMMA curators confirm that this piece is the artist’s interpretation of Manhattan, and that “by juxtaposing old and new, Hammond questions the supposed objectivity of geographical maps.” The title references the artist's collaboration with John Ashberry, the Pulitzer-prize-winning poet. Like many other artists presented in this exhibition, Hammond brings the everyday into “high art,” dramatically shifting prominent perceptions, particularly at that time, about what art should and could be. 

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

"Exercising the Eye: The Gertrude Kasle Collection" is in the Alfred Taubman Gallery at the U-M Museum of Art, 525 S. State St., Ann Arbor, through July 22. Admission is free. Galleries are open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.