Editor's note: The following essay is printed with permission of Jill R. Chancey and the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. The essay was written in connection with the exhibition Americans on Paper, which is on view at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi through January 27, 2002. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Americans on Paper
by Jill R. Chancey
Since the founding of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in 1922, works on paper have been part of the Museum's American art collection. Because works on paper are delicate and easily damaged by light, they must spend much of the time hidden in a vault, in the darkness. In Americans on Paper, we bring into the light more than 60 prints, drawings, watercolors, and even some of our seldom-seen bookplate collection, as well as a selection of Pop Art works from a Laurel, Mississippi, private collection.
The media, subjects, and styles are diverse. The papers ranges from handmade artist's paper to the most common type of posterboard. The media range from a simple graphite pencil to most of the common printing techniques, such as etching, lithography, and screenprinting. Some of these works were intended as fine art, others decorative art, and yet other works were originally advertisements. While the methods, materials, and artists may be diverse, there is a common thread: it is the American experience.
In 1894, Charles Francis Browne wrote, "American art must be developed by the artists in happy sympathy with American surroundings, and supported by a public loving the home things more than imported foreign sentiment." While a certain jingoistic attitude might be thought to underlie sentiments such as these, on the whole Browne's prescription for an American art holds up remarkably well more than a century later. The museum's collection has been developed by a number of personalities, through purchase and gift, for more than 75 years. A search for the best and most interesting works on paper yields a remarkable variety of works showing signs of the artist "loving the home things more."
Winslow Homer's Mending the Tears (intaglio, 1888) depicts the mundane task of net-mending, practiced by every fishing family from time immemorial. It is not a history painting nor a great religious event. It is no doubt tiring, tedious work, but Homer makes his menders monumental, idealized, and in some ways heroic in this image. Other images of American people are equally quotidian, yet the ordinariness is deceptive. During William Hollingsworth's too-short life and career, he produced numerous drawings and watercolors of daily life in Mississippi, with a quickness and charm. Chasing Chicken and Porch Party are subjects he captures with spontaneity and verve. He is also that rarest of early 20th century artists: a white man who appears not to condescend to the African-Americans he depicts.
Jacob Lawrence's Forward Together (serigraph, 1997) is a metaphorical image of African-Americans moving forward, united, in a field of flowing color. The ideas of movement, unity, progress refer to the struggles of the African-American race since the beginning of slavery. Each of these images of American people speaks to a specific American experience -- the struggle for civil rights, Saturday night entertainment in rural Mississippi, fishing on the coast of Maine, or any of the other myriad American experiences. In fact of all the works on display, only one, Forward Together, depicts a celebrity or even an important historical figure. Lawrence's work includes a portrait of Harriet Tubman. At the turn of the 19th century, the American academic painter Benjamin West was the first to reject traditional history painting; by the end of that century many American artists sought their material in the world around them, not in history books or religion.
A second theme in the show is American places. In Fairfield Porter's The Christmas Tree (lithograph, 1975), that place is as simple as a cozy living room with a rocking chair and a Christmas tree. The room is made even more inviting by the positioning of the viewer just outside the door, able to see only part of the scene, but just enough to be enticed. The space is comfortable, domestic, perhaps even rather small. Other American artists, like Grant Wood, celebrate the wide-open spaces of the Middle West, as in Seed Time and Harvest (lithograph, 1937), with its prosperous farmer amid his undulating acreage. Only one of the images in the exhibition is foreign - Frank Duveneck's Venetian Scene (etching). The experience of Venice was basic to most American artists; in a nation with a short history and very few museums or art schools, the artist who wished to be a professional had to take a tour (or several) through Europe. Venice was an essential stop on the artist's tour of Europe, and thus a Venetian scene by Duveneck brings home to the viewer a standard experience of the American artist.
Scholars such as David Park Curry and Barbara Novak have noted the American artist's tendency to focus on things present, material, and plausible. No group of artists focused more closely on the stuff of daily life than the Pop Artists. Warhol's Oyster Stew (lithograph, c. 1972) is perhaps the most obvious example in the exhibition. It is an iconic portrait of that eminently consumable item, a can of Campbell's soup (to be precise, a can of oyster stew). Not only is the subject a mass-produced consumer item, but the print itself was created with a commercial process, screen-printing, which can be used to make thousands of copies quickly and inexpensively. Yet Warhol is not alone in his celebration of consumer goods. Claes Oldenburg's Clothesline (lithograph, 1973) is a swirl of color inhabited by a shirt, a hat, several other cloth items, and lest we forget that everything has its price, the inscription "29¢." Although there is no literal clothesline visible -- perhaps this is a 'line' of clothing in the retail sense -- these ordinary items have been elevated to the status of fine art. Oldenburg and Warhol both made careers of bringing images of distinctly inexpensive, mass-made objects into art galleries and forcing viewers to reconsider items rarely noticed in the course of daily life.
What could be more American than a can of Campbell's soup? Not only is it an American product, it is an affordable American product. Anybody who can buy groceries can afford a can of oyster stew ("WITH GRADE AA BUTTER"). Every American has seen Campbell's Soup in the grocery store.
Perhaps the most complex theme in the show is that of American ideas. The selection of three vintage posters (I Want You!, Have You a Red Cross Service Flag?, and Man the Guns: Join the Navy) represents the idea of patriotism. The posters are representational, figurative works, to be sure, but they are intended to stir up national pride. I Want You! is perhaps the best-known World War II era poster. In it a somewhat intimidating Uncle Sam points at the viewer directly, demanding national service. Have You a Red Cross Service Flag? (1918) is a much sweeter image of a small child looking out of a homey window. A rather different time and place -- America during the Vietnam War -- inspired Ad Reinhardt's Postcard (1967). Instead of a call to arms, Reinhardt issued a call to peace:
The second half of the postcard goes on:
Reinhardt was responding to a different war and a different time in American history, with text and frankness instead of a representational work designed to tug at the emotions. He was of that post-World War II generation that rejected representational art in favor of the abstract. He and his contemporaries, such as Adolph Gottlieb and Helen Frankenthaler, chose to paint art about ideas instead of art about people, places, or politics. The realm of color, line, composition, and form seemed to be the most important place an artist could work. And as Serge Guilbaut has suggested, it may have been the safest place for an artist in the politically charged (and politically dangerous) McCarthy years. Stephen Polcari has suggested, however, that Gottlieb's "burst" pictures, such as his Chrome Green (serigraph, 1972), are an explicit (but not a political) response to post-war atomic fear. The half-dozen abstract works in the show seem to be mostly about ideas as the viewer is forced to consider meaning and intention on his or her own. This freedom granted to the viewer is another American idea; although abstraction was not invented by Americans many American critics have believed that its triumph took place in New York in the years after World War II.
In some ways, this survey of works on paper provides a survey of American ideas about what art is, what it should be, and what it is for. It provides us with images of American things and American people, American experiences, and American ideas. Americans on Paper is on view at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi, through January 27, 2002. More information on the show and the museum is available at www.lrma.org
About the author
Jill R. Chancey is the Curator of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi, and a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. She received her B.A. from Trinity University and an M.A. in Art History from Tulane University. She is currently writing a dissertation on the Abstract Expressionist artist, Elaine de Kooning
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine.
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 11/28/11
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