CHAMPAIGN – Asked to select 10 abstract expressionist paintings to be depicted on U.S. postage stamps, University of Illinois art history Professor Jonathan Fineberg tried to pick ones that were famous, characteristic of the genre, and not in the collections of predictable museums like the Metropolitan in New York.
He chose works that belong to perhaps lesser-known institutions, among them the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where he is a trustee, and Krannert Art Museum on the UI campus, where he is the Gutgsell Professor of Art History.
"I could have picked a thousand different things, there are so many good examples of abstract expressionism," he said. "There's no way with 10 images that you can cover all the artists, let alone the range of their work."
The U.S. Postal Service describes abstract expressionism as a large body of work that comprised radically different styles – from still, luminescent fields of color to vigorous, almost violent, slashes of paint.
The pane of self-adhesive stamps, to be released on Thursday, honors 10 abstract expressionists who revolutionized art during the 1940s and 1950s and moved the United States to the forefront of the international art scene, for the first time.
Among them is Adolph Gottlieb, whose 1949 painting "Romanesque Faade" is part of the collection of Krannert Art Museum. It is not on view there now but has been at various times.
Among other artists represented on the stamps are Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell and Hans Hoffman.
Fineberg also wrote the text for the pane.
He worked with Postal Services art director Ethel Kessler. He said there was a bit of "horse-trading" on the selection, mostly with Barnett Newman's work.
Kessler wanted to use Newman's "Achilles," mainly because she wanted to have elements from the 1952 painting frame the stamps.
"The arrangement of the stamps suggests paintings hanging on a gallery wall," according to the Postal Service.
Fineberg had received a call "out of the blue" asking him to help pick the stamps to honor abstract expressionists. He is nationally known, mainly as a result of his standard textbook, "Art Since 1940," which has seen multiple editions as well as translation in China, and his documentary, "Imagining America: Icons of 20th-Century American Art," which was broadcast nationwide in late 2005 by PBS. There also is a companion book.
He believes Joan Mondale, wife of former U.S. vice president Walter Mondale, was behind the Postal Service issuing the stamps to honor abstract expressionists.
She recently left the panel that reviews topics and people to be commemorated on stamps.
"She's always been a real great patron of the arts. When he was VP, she was called 'Joan of Art,'" Fineberg said. "She was always standing up for the arts and trying to get things done. I think this might have been her swan song; she wanted to do this."