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The Circus in 20th Century American Art: Images From The World Between

June 8 - August 18, 2002


The Austin Museum of Art--Downtown (AMOA) presents approximately 90 works consisting of paintings, sculpture, prints, photographs, and video by 20th Century American artists whose works reflect a significant interest in the circus. The exhibition, which offers a unique look at many aspects of circus life including clowns, ringmasters, animals, and the "big top," will be on view through August 18, 2002, at AMOA-Downtown.

New York Times art critic, Grace Glueck, wrote the following about the exhibition: "...seeing 'The Circus in 20th Century American Art'... is almost as good as watching the real thing. In the show, strutting ringmasters reign, clowns caper, acrobats soar, lion tamers engage in derring-do...with such vivacity that the flavor of the circus pervades..."

Artists featured in the exhibition include George Bellows, Alexander Calder, John Steuart Curry, Charles Demuth, Walt Kuhn, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi from the first half of the century; and Diane Arbus, Polly Apfelbaum, Lisette Model, and Bruce Nauman from more recent times. Many important museums have loaned masterpieces for this exhibition, including the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. (left: Walt Kuhn, Lancer, 1939, Oil on canvas, 45 1/2 x 26 1/4 inches, Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, Currier Funds)

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue with essays by Eugene Gaddis, Danna Gustafson, Ellen Handy, Karal Ann Marling and Lee Siegel.

The exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts.

The circus, described by German literary critic Heinz Politzer as "a world between," is a subject that for many artists is filled with metaphoric possibility, formal experimentation, and exotic allure.Much more than popular entertainment, the circus is a dazzling alternative to everyday life, both a spectacle of man's tragic failings, as seen in the often bittersweet performances of clowns, and a vision of his rich potential, symbolized by the daring and skill of aerialists. This important exhibition of approximately ninety works brings together paintings, sculpture, prints, photographs, and video by twentieth-century American artists whose work reflects a sustained or significant interest in the circus.

During the nineteenth century, the circus -- a traveling troupe of acrobats, clowns, riders, exotic animals, biological oddities, and wild animal acts -- evolved with American society at large. Cars and bicycles were incorporated into clown and acrobatic acts, railroads were utilized to haul performers and animals from town to town, and, especially during the Golden Age of Circus (1890-1930), contemporary designers and composers were employed to continually modernize performances. In Europe, where the circus had long been recognized as an eloquent subject, post-Impressionist artists produced images that were innovative in both subject and form. In the United States, under the impetus of Robert Henri's exhortation to paint contemporary life, artists began to search out and record scenes of popular spectacle like the circus, vaudeville, and dance halls. Visiting the circus in both its urban and rural manifestations, artists such as Bellows, Calder, Curry, Demuth, and Kuhn created works that were informed by European precedents, but that were undeniably American in character. These artists often focused on the darker aspects of circus life, such as the danger inherent in many of the performances or the appeal of the grotesque, while others memorialized individual circus performers whose physical prowess, courage, and grace earned them celebrity status.

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