2021 Masters Exhibit

In the mid-1950s, observed by a small documentary crew, a man combs the beach near his home and studio in East Hampton, New York, location of choice for a growing number of avant-garde artists retreating from city life. He is a painter, now delving into the expressive possibilities of collage incorporating found objects and materials. John Little will return to his studio at Duck Creek Farm to arrange his findings as if they’re swathes of paint, composing them on the floor before securing each piece in place, all subject to the cameras of a filmmaker intent on following a new generation of artists with a hunch that they are doing something historic. That same documentarian has just three years before and a few miles away filmed the now-famous footage of Jackson Pollock, dripping and flinging paint onto a transparent surface seen from below, capturing the motion and fervor that will give Action Painting its name.

At this same time in New York City, the newly-minted Guggenheim Museum presents a plucky exhibition of up-and-coming artists titled Younger American Painters, whose carefully-curated selection of artists Director James John Sweeney likens to “pioneers, in their eagerness to seek ‘a new tradition, or to contrive one.’” This exhibit includes what would become some of the greatest names in American abstraction: Richard Diebenkorn, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and a young Jack Roth. At 27 years old, Roth has degrees in three different disciplines, and has for several years balanced the development of his own painting career with his love for mathematics, philosophy, and teaching. He is not the youngest of the Younger American Painters, but he is one of the most productive and self-driven, constantly pushing his painting, as Sweeney put it, “beyond familiar ground.”

John Little and Jack Roth did not become household names in the 20th century, despite recognition by critics, curators, and peers in an American art scene changing as a direct result of their innovation and persistence. Abstract painting took its place in art history only as artists defined and insisted on its meaning and power––that wordless, non-pictorial arrangement of color, shape, line, and texture could convey feeling and impressions with intrinsic merit. This work, of breaking artistic ground and leading a charge toward a new horizon in painting, spanned the long careers of Little and Roth. They were both prolific, exhibiting continued growth through their lives, and while their practices overlapped the two did not exhibit together in their lifetimes. Nonetheless their oeuvres interplay in an intriguing alternation between parallels and distinctions of style, at times harmonizing in their approach and at others standing in stark contrast to one another. Sager Reeves Gallery now brings together over 50 works—many of which have never been exhibited—by the two artists, ranging from large-scale oils to assemblage, highlighting the history-shaping risks and turns that show a drive toward a new ideal of beauty.