Matthew Affron / Art History

I am a curator at the University’s Fralin Museum of Art and a faculty member in the art history program. In the fall of 2012 our museum will present an exhibition entitled Jean Hélion: Reality and Abstraction.  I am the organizer of this exhibition.

 Also in the fall, I will lead an undergraduate seminar on the theme of abstract art. While this is a topic that I have taught from time to time, the exhibition, by providing direct access to some forty paintings and works on paper all on loan, will make it possible for my students and me to engage with the theme in an exciting new way. The exhibition, in other words, will be an extraordinary academic resource for the seminar.  My “Dream Project” is a field trip that will further expand my students’ experience of works of art by Hélion and his colleagues in the world of abstract art in the 1930s.

 Hélion was the maker of extraordinary abstract compositions that balance purity, visual dynamism, and a sense of unceasing formal metamorphosis.  He was also a leader in the international community of abstract artists.  Hélion helped to found a significant international artists’ group called Abstraction-Création in Paris in

1931, participated in many important exhibitions in Europe, and forged significant connections with artists, dealers, and collectors in the United States. He spent the years between 1932 and 1939 shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic and between studios located in Paris, New York City, and Rockbridge Baths, Virginia.  The exhibition will present Hélion as a scrupulously self- questioning artist who forever sought to refine the rationale of his art. It will present those the refinements and changes in his art from the late 1920s to the end of the 1930s, when Hélion turned from pure abstraction and began painting themes of everyday life in a relatively figurative style. This change was hardly as simple as it might first appear. Hélion intriguingly complicates any simple opposition between notions of abstract art’s detachment and realism’s involvement in social immediacy.

My “Dream Idea” is a two-day field trip for the 12 seminar participants and me to examine the A. E. Gallatin Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Gallatin began in the 1920s to assemble one of the great collections of modern art in America, and in the 1930s, with Hélion as his chief adviser, he focused his collection on geometrical abstract art.  If Jean Hélion: Reality and Abstraction will give our seminar depth and focus, a study visit to the Gallatin Collection would provide the students with a broader view of the context of 1930s abstract art. Each seminar participant would select a major work by one of Hélion’s colleagues in the Abstraction-Création artists’ group, study that work in Philadelphia, and then conduct in-depth research on it in Charlottesville.  Occurring early in the semester, this visit to Philadelphia would also help to create esprit de corps for our group. The process of looking and study would help the seminar participants to develop a common set of key ideas for the study of abstract art.

I am grateful for the opportunity to enhance my interaction with the students as a Mead Fellow.  I request support in the amount of $3,000 to cover our transportation, accommodations, and other expenses on the two-day research trip to Philadelphia.