Abstract Drawings

June 14, 2012 — January 6, 2013

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
Media - 1996.104.55 - SAAM-1996.104.55_1 - 55872

Gene Davis, Saber Dance, 1952, ink and ink wash on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Abstract Drawings presents a selection of forty-six works on paper from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection that are rarely on public display. From simple sketches to highly finished compositions, these works represent the rich possibilities of abstraction as a mode of artistic expression.


American artists began to experiment with abstraction in the early twentieth century. This installation includes works from the 1930s to 2009 by artists such as Joseph Cornell, Willem de Kooning, Gene Davis, Jacob Kainen, Man Ray, Theodore Roszak, and Sean Scully, among others. Most abstract drawings were created as independent works of art in which the artist explored an idea or the relationship of forms and colors, as in Bones by Andrea Way or Saber Dance by Gene Davis. In many of the drawings, references to objects, figures, or places remain visible, but they have been transformed into compositions that have only passing resemblance to their source of inspiration, such as Charles Seliger’s series of fourteen illustrations for the unfinished satire An Island in the Moon by poet William Blake. The collages by Joseph Cornell were based on Rorschach inkblots that were then transformed into images by the artist’s imagination and deft addition of line. Some of the featured drawings were preparatory for works of art in another medium, such as Al Held’s Untitled (Study for Order/​Disorder/​Ascension/​Descension) (1975), which he created for an enormous two-part mural commissioned for the Social Security building lobby in Philadelphia.

The artworks on display were selected by Joann Moser, senior curator.