In the mid-1950s, American painters — New Yorkers — dominated the art world as powerfully and aggressively as American armed forces dominated the sea and skies.

Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and the others identified with the New York School made work that was big and bold, full of strong gestures and seemingly spontaneous inspirations. And though many looked at this apparently crude work and cracked that their kids could do as well, there was agreement among those who knew that theirs was the work that defined the time.

For Philadelphia artists, this New York scene was physically nearby, yet almost another world. They were working in a city where realism had long been king, where people purchased art that fit over their sofas, and whose greatest contribution to the consciousness of the era was American Bandstand. Could they find a way to learn from and share in the energies of the moment in a way that made sense in Philadelphia?

This was the context that led to the formation of Group ’55, a short-lived collaboration of people involved in a range of arts, though mostly painting, whose goal was to learn from each other and to communicate to the public how to understand and appreciate the sometimes difficult art inspired by the modern age. It was named for the year it was founded.

“Group ’55 and Midcentury Abstraction in Philadelphia,” at the Woodmere Art Museum through Jan. 24, surveys the work of those who participated in Group ’55 and its offshoot, Philadelphia Abstract Artists, along with others who were working in the same spirit. It’s no spoiler to observe that the show does not unearth any great, unrecognized local abstract expressionists. It does, however, illuminate a mostly forgotten moment in Philadelphia.

The founder and presiding spirit of Group ’55 was Sam Feinstein (1915-2003), a painter who was also a prolific art reviewer. He designed the group’s logo, a brushed starburst, and defined the organization as “a group of artists united by their exploration of contemporary forms to express the spirit of our time.”

Sam Feinstein's Pieta II (1957), at Woodmere Art Museum
Samuel L. Feinstein Trust
Sam Feinstein's Pieta II (1957), at Woodmere Art Museum

Group ’55, which had about two dozen members, was selective; you needed to apply to be a member. But it was also outward-looking, sponsoring frequent forums to which the public was invited. Several of them were held in the Free Library’s large auditorium.

Feinstein’s goal was to get people to slow down and look carefully at the sort of emotionally fraught, nonpictorial art he was producing, and also to give people a vocabulary with which to talk about it. Their canvases, Feinstein and others told the forums, were not pictures of something, but expressions and findings, painted on canvas.

In fact, few works in this show are purely nonobjective. Nearly all are abstractions of natural, figural, or mechanical phenomena.

Indeed, Feinstein himself confuses the issue when he calls two of his works “Pieta,” invoking the traditional Christian scene of Mary cradling the corpse of her crucified son. Should we see the brown vertical mass at the center of Pieta II (1957) as the body of Christ? It looks more like a cross. Is the use of blue meant to evoke the blue that is the conventional color of Mary’s garments? If so, how is this just not another Pieta, a picture of a scene?

Distilled emotions

The answer the artists would give is that this is not a picture, but rather a distillation of the emotions a Pieta invokes. People have been making and looking at abstract art for well over a century, so we are used to this answer and sympathetic to it.

Still, faced as we are at Woodmere with a gallery full of many different, mostly unfamiliar artists, the viewing is demanding. And although we think of abstract expressionism as being spontaneous, loose, and fast, it often takes repeated viewings, over time, before it is possible to know what to make of it.

Color is the most effective shortcut to the emotions, not to mention the element that makes a work pop off the wall. Three works by Quita Brodhead (1901-2002), one of the founders of Group ’55, stand out not just because the colors catch your eye but because of the way they draw you in.

Quita Brodhead, Abstract #1, (c. 1955) Woodmere Art Museum
Woodmere Art Museum
Quita Brodhead, Abstract #1, (c. 1955) Woodmere Art Museum

The drama in a painting like Abstract #1 comes from the way the colors explode out of the white at its center and then strongly contrast with, merge, and bleed into one another. There may be a figure hidden in there; our brains are hardwired to look for faces. But mostly it is a place she has conjured in which you can lose yourself.

There was one great artist associated with Group ’55, the architect Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974). He was an active member, who spoke at several of the forums, though his work appears to have little in common with that of the other members. Like the others, he sought to engage people’s emotions, but he did so through the play of light upon solid masses.

In the exhibition, he is represented by the iconic, perhaps excessively monumental changing rooms he designed for a Jewish community center near Trenton. This is an exercise in pure geometry, pure symmetry that seems a world away from the swirling emotions to be seen elsewhere in the gallery.

A replica of the mural he made for that building, in collaboration with Marie Kuo, seems to be completely abstract and geometric, reminiscent of the “clean” graphic design style of midcentury. Yet a second glance suggests that it is full of bathing caps and buttocks, just like the swimming pool the bathhouse served. It’s the only piece in the show that made me smile.

Replica of the Trenton Mural by Louis I. Kahn and Marie Kuo. Originally created for the bathhouse for the Trenton Jewish Community Center, 1954-59, designed by Kahn and Anne Tyng. Mural fabricated in 2012 by Canning Studios.
Courtesy of the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, by the gift of the Vitra Design Museum
Replica of the Trenton Mural by Louis I. Kahn and Marie Kuo. Originally created for the bathhouse for the Trenton Jewish Community Center, 1954-59, designed by Kahn and Anne Tyng. Mural fabricated in 2012 by Canning Studios.

I had assumed that Kahn’s involvement with Group ’55 was explained by his desire to socialize and theorize, preferably simultaneously. But on reflection, perhaps there was a deeper connection.

Kahn took his inspiration from Scottish castles, Roman ruins, and Philadelphia streets. Feinstein painted Pietas and sought out medieval altarpieces. Both of them, and many of their colleagues, found their modernist visions in the historic. That alone made Group ’55 a very Philadelphia phenomenon.

But by 1958, Group ’55 was finished. Sam Feinstein had moved to New York.

ON EXHIBIT

Group ’55 and Midcentury Abstraction in Philadelphia

Through Jan. 24 at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave.

Hours: Tues.-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Admission: Adults $10, 55+ $7, children and students free. (Free for all Sundays). Reserve timed tickets online.

Information: 215-247-0476 or woodmereartmuseum.org