Modernism and Abstraction: Treasures From the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Through Sept. 9 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 919 Broadway Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; open until 8 p.m. Thurs.; 1-5 p.m. Sun. For information, call 244-3340 or visit www.fristcenter.org
Aside from a Titans home game, you just can’t predict what will draw a crowd in Nashville these days. But who would have expected that an art lecture on a Saturday afternoon would be standing room only?
Frist officials were certainly surprised at the number of people who showed up July 21 to hear Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, talk about her museum’s touring show, which is currently on view in the Frist’s main gallery. “Good afternoon and holy cow,” exclaimed Mark Scala, curator of American art for the Frist Center, as he greeted the overflow crowd of almost 300 that jammed the center’s auditorium to hear Broun speak. “This is the biggest house we’ve had in the auditorium yetand that’s including our grand opening events,” Scala said. “Is it raining outside or something?”
While the oppressively hot and humid weather was enough to drive anyone inside that day, one has to believe that the cool modern art from the Smithsonian had something to do with the crowd. Broun, who also expressed amazement at the turnout, delivered a 30-minute talk that stressed the human element in art over style or media. Focusing on works by Joseph Stella, Willem de Kooning, William H. Johnson, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, and David Hockney, she discussed each artist’s life and how his or her personal experiences were reflected in their art. “Each work in the show contains a story and provides insight into the American experience,” Broun said in conclusion. “These works have so much to tell us about who we are as a nation and as a people.”
Looking at the art as a reflection of a changing, growing America is perhaps the best way to approach a show this daunting in chronological and stylistic scope. Pieces date from 1909 to 1996 and styles run the gamut from Postimpressionism and Cubism to abstract expressionism and pop art. Works by familiar names like Hockney, O’Keeffe, and de Kooning mix with those by lesser-known artists like H. Lyman Sayen, Beckford Young, and dozens of others. Text panels beside each item on display offer insight into the artist’s background and contribution to modern art in America. Visitors can also pick up a full-color brochure featuring an excellent essay by Scala that helps to put the many art movements represented in the show into historical perspective.
The exhibition is arranged in chronological fashion, beginning with works that illustrate how American artists experimented with the modern styles coming out of Europe in the 1920s and ’30s. William H. Johnson’s “Harbor Under the Midnight Sun” (1937) shows the influence of Postimpressionism in the vigorous, swirling brush strokes and geometric shapes Johnson uses to create a striking view of a fjord in Norway. Johnson, a formally trained African American artist born in South Carolina, lived for 13 years in Europe before returning to America and adopting an entirely new style of simple, flat shapes to depict a range of African American experiences, from Harlem nightlife to rural sharecropping. Excellent examples of Johnson’s later work are in the Fisk University art collections.
Early pieces in the Smithsonian exhibition also reflect the influence of such European art movements as fauvism, cubism, and surrealism on American artists. But as the bulk of the works in the show prove, once this nation’s artists absorbed European artistic ideals, they adapted them to their own unique purposes. Geometric abstraction, as Scala points out in his essay, was ideally suited to depicting the rising industrial giant that was America in the 1930s and ’40s. Georgia O’Keeffe adapted that style to suit her vision of a New York skyscraper in “Cityscape With Roses” (1932); she uses jagged shards of color to construct her building and then softens the view by adding a few rose blossoms floating in the sky. O’Keeffe, who lived on the 30th floor of Manhattan’s first high-rise at the time of this painting, had recently visited the Southwest and noted the paper roses used as decorations there. In “Cityscape With Roses,” she mixes two very different American experiences in one canvas in a way that foreshadows the “magical realism” style with which her work would become synonymous.
Excellent examples of abstract expressionism (or “action painting”), a distinctively American style that dominated the art world from the late 1940s to the 1960s, are also featured in the show. Among these are Franz Kline’s “Merce C” (1961), a dramatic slash of black paint on white canvas, and Robert Motherwell’s “Monster” (1959), another work that expresses the emotional world of the artist through the physical act of putting paint on canvas. Jackson Pollock, the most famous of the action painters, isn’t featured in the Smithsonian collection, but Frist visitors can check out one of his works on view in the “Enduring Legacy” exhibition in the Frist Center’s second-floor gallery.
After paying homage to the abstract expressionists, the Smithsonian show moves on to take a look at the use of nontraditional materials in modern art. Fascinating works include William Christenberry’s “Alabama Wall” (1985), a huge collage of painted corrugated tin, license plates, and metal soft-drink signs, and Sam Gilliam’s “Art Ramp Angle Brown” (1978), in which pieces of paint-covered canvas and patterned fabric create a mounted L-shaped sculpture that ripples across the wall. The next section of the show highlights, as Scala notes in his essay, a return to “traditional subjects like the human figure, landscape, and still life.” Works like Frederick Brown’s “Stagger Lee” (1984), a folk-art-style depiction of the antihero of song and legend, and Wayne Thiebaud’s painting of a one-armed bandit entitled “Jackpot Machine” (1962) are featured in this section.
A tour of the exhibition begins and ends with “Double Entrance” (1993-95) by David Hockney, a British artist who has lived in Los Angeles since 1964 and is best known for his photo-realistic views of the California lifestyle. One of the works highlighted by Broun in her talk, Hockney’s enormous geometric abstract features interlocking shapes of red, orange, purple, green, yellow, and black that engage the eye in what Broun calls “an operatic dance across the canvas.” More than that, though, Hockney’s abstract view of his experiences driving the hills near his Los Angeles home seems to express the kind of “let’s see what’s around the next curve” approach that is the hallmark of American artand life.
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