From Sargent to Grooms
Drawings from Cheekwood Museum of Art
Through Aug. 1
Cheekwood Museum of Art
1200 Forrest Park Dr.
Since Cheekwood Museum of Art opened in the 1960s, it has been amassing an impressive collection of works on paper, mostly from the 1880s to the 1940s. But there's a catch associated with collecting these pieceswatercolors and drawings can only be shown for short periods of time, to preserve them from the destructive forces of light. With the current "From Sargent to Grooms" exhibit, Cheekwood curators have carefully selected 50 or so pieces to underscore the strength of the museum's permanent collection. "In terms of themes, media and artists, it's a good cross-section," says museum director Jack Becker. "It's a sort of greatest-hits show."
There's no chronological order to the exhibition or any other obvious ordering principle. The first thing the visitor will likely be drawn to is Reginald Marsh's "Coney Island Beach" (1945), which depicts a hellish post-World War II scene at the beach, without the color and the gaiety typically associated with Coney Island. Instead, we have athletic, sexually aggressive men, home from a disillusioning war, lasciviously intermingled with their wives and girlfriends (who are purposely and crudely inflated around the thighs and breasts). Everything points to a loss of innocence and a new, embittered world order. It's disturbing and appropriately anti-erotic, despite the amount of the flesh on show. Not six feet away, however, is Elmer Livingston McRae's "Feeding the Cats" (1912). This charming pastel depicts young children gathered in a summer garden to feed their pets, but surprisingly the massive contrast between these two pieces doesn't jar. The neighboring images are closely linked in a strange way, with their focus on innocenceor loss of itbut they come from alien worlds, their sensibilities irrevocably severed by two shattering world wars.
While there's no central theme to this show as such, New York City is repeatedly highlighted, whether directly (through sketches of its skyline) or indirectly (as a place where many of the artists lived and worked). The exhibition includes five recently acquired works in crayon and chalk by Arthur B. Davies, who was central to the New York art scene at the beginning of the 20th century. Davies was enamored of classical themes and fantastic poetic visions. His pieces here are simple figure studiesprototypes and rehearsals for larger paintingsbut no less fascinating for that. A.C. Webb's "Chrysler Building in New York," which depicts the construction of the famous skyscraper in the 1930s, is a fascinating historical document, as is Everett Shinn's 1907 work, "Fire on 24th Street." Shinn was an illustrator for New York's World, Journal and Herald, and this hastily composed pastel piece captures the drama and destructive force of a raging fire as well as a photographic snapshot ever could.
Joseph Stella's 1925 portrait of Kathleen Millay possibly steals the entire show. The sister of poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay, she was a poet in her own right and a part of the Greenwich Village progressive art scene in the 1920s. Millay's formidably stern gaze appears to follow everything that moves in the gallery. Purposefully triangular in construction, the austerity and dignity of the portrait is enhanced by Stella's laser-like use of silverpoint, a technique little used since the Renaissance. There are no soft feminine edges here. Stella took his cues from the Old Masters, but his subject is very much forward-lookinga sexually assertive, strong and liberal "new" woman.
There are plenty of links to Nashville in the show. Werner Wildner, who died last month, was a recluse and a longtime resident of the city. "I've always liked the grotesque and the erotic, the odd and the horrible," he was quoted as saying. "Mouse on a Cheese Cart" and "Goblin" certainly fit right into the artist's stated agenda. Also tucked away in a corner loosely devoted to more contemporary works on paper is another link to Nashville's history: "Tootsie's Orchid Lounge" (1986), by John Baeder, immortalizes the Nashville landmark with the artist's trademark photo-realism. A native Nashvillian, Meyer Wolfe related the everyday experience of African Americans in his works. He took to drawing at the age of 11 because, the story goes, he "couldn't afford to do anything else." His untitled 1942 charcoal portrait of a laborer is typical enough of his direct urban realism. Another native son, John Edwin Jackson, is represented by his pastel "Skyscrapers," which immediately brings to mind the treatment of the same subject matter by photographer Alfred Steiglitz.
Maurice Prendergast's impressionistic "Via Garibaldi" (c. 1899) is another highlight. Prendergast loved to travel and paint spontaneously as he did so. This is Venice seen very much through the eyes of an American doing the Grand Tour. Idealized, perhaps, but this vibrant and unashamedly optimistic watercolor transports the viewer effortlessly to one of Venice's main drags at the turn of the 20th century. Maynard Dixon magically captures the pioneering spirit of the old West in his gouache and pencil piece, "First Pacific Railroad" (1930). Look closely in the background, and you will see the silhouette of a distant cowboy standing by his covered wagon and tipping his hat to progress as the passing steam engine races across the landscape.
As for the "stars" of the show, the two artists whose names are highlighted in the exhibition title, John Singer Sargent is represented by just two pieces, both charcoal studies for the Boston Public Library mural, "The Triumph of Religion." The entire project took Sargent more than 20 years to complete. These preliminary studies, although not substantial, foreshadow the greatness of the work to follow. Often accused of painting "pretty" but ultimately vacuous works, Sargent attempted to reassert himself as a "serious" artist with this mural. Red Grooms offers a typical slice of reality with "On the Aegean" (1995). Here he shows up with his wife Lysiane on the deck of a cruise liner in the waters off the Greek coast. This gently mocking self-portrait in watercolor, with the artist typically festooned in tacky tourist garb, is the most colorful and humorous piece in the show; it's also the most contemporary.
"From Sargent to Grooms" serves up more than a century of great American art and in doing so takes the viewer on a spin through the last hundred years of American historyfrom steam trains thundering across the plains, to the mighty edifices of modernity, to hopelessly idealized depictions of fast-disappearing landscapes, to the grim reality of the urban slum. Sure, the headline highlights the big crowd-pulling names, but while Sargent and Grooms bookend this show, chronologically speaking, most of the magic is actually to be found on the walls in between these well-known American artists. The lure of the show is actually the medium of drawing itself: straight from the artist's imagination, through the hand and onto the paper in a spontaneous sweep. Many of these works have never been seen before, so it's worth catching them while you can, before they are consigned once again to the anonymous preserving darkness of the Cheekwood vaults.
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