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Minnesota's abstract art tradition
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Native American artist George Morrison's painting Pennsylvania Triptych is featured in the Rochester Art Center exhibit. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Museum of American Art)
Say abstract art to most people and they think New York, California, or Europe. But Minnesota has a well established if not well known tradition of abstract art running all the way back to the 1930s. Now the first show ever tracing the evolution of abstract painting in Minnesota is opening at the Rochester Art Center.

Rochester, Minn. — Paintings lean against fresh white gallery walls waiting to be hung. It's a few days before the opening of the show "Abstract Painting in Minnesota" and for curator Thomas Barry it's the culmination of four frenzied months.

Barry wanders over to a painting by John P. Anderson. It's the oldest piece in the show dating back to the early 1930s. Carefully drawn geometric shapes lie flat on a sea of mossy green. Anderson lived and painted in Red Wing. Barry says Anderson was clearly ahead of his time.

"It's very unusual for this type of work to be done in a small town in Minnesota," Barry explains. "I mean this really has more of an affinity with what's going on in say Paris at the time. Even New York hadn't really caught on to what was going on in Paris at the time. So to see this abstraction done in a remote place like Red Wing I think is really exceptional."

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Image Summer Solstice (1954)

Barry says you won't find John P. Anderson listed in art history books. His work remains obscure. Barry says he only came across it by chance. Anderson's relatives stored his paintings at Barry's gallery in the warehouse district in Minneapolis. Barry says he immediately knew the work was important and needed to be shared with a larger audience.

Not far away three textured panels that resemble the color of denim jeans are grouped carefully together. They are the work of Catherine Johnson. Next those hangs an oversized sheet filled with 25 large circles, each one painted in a different color or style. It's the creation of well-known Minnesota artist Stuart Nielsen. Barry says it's an example of what was happening thirty years ago in the Twin Cities.

"It's really a beautiful piece and very indicative of the scale of work being done in the late 70s and early 80s," says Barry. "There's actually a bit of a movement in Minneapolis where a number of artists were being recognized for establishing a community of abstract painting and Stuart Nielsen was one of the artists involved in that."

Barry says the abstract movement continues. He says ideas are recycled and themes tend to reemerge. Barry explains when he was putting the show together he sought out works that were truly abstract and free of recognizable objects. He hopes that will allow viewers to greet each painting with an open mind.

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Image Approaching Circumstance (2004)

Barry gazes across the gallery, and he says the show's a testament to the state's 70 plus year history with abstract art.

"I mean a lot of the knock on Minnesota has been we're just out of the way and a destination and when it comes to art that is not the case at all," says Barry. "People go through here because it's an important place and I think that has a lot to do with the people who live and work and produce the kind of work that's in this show."

Barry expects many of those artists will attend opening night festivities this evening at the Rochester Art Center. He calls the show a fulfillment of a 30 year dream.

"Abstract Painting in Minnesota: Selected Works, 1930 to the Present" will continue in Rochester through the end of the year. From there, the show travels to the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul.

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