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An American Anthem: 300 Years of Painting from The Butler Institute of American Art

An American Anthem: 300 Years of Painting from The Butler Institute of American Art, continues through September 8, 2002, at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, West Gallery. This exhibition, which drew rave reviews in every city where it was shown, contains 55 paintings that present a survey of American art from colonial portraiture through American Impressionism to modernism and abstraction in the 20th century. (left: Edward Potthast , Afternoon Fun, 989-0-103, 24 x 30 inches, The Butler Institute of Art)

"This summer we are pleased to offer national treasures of American art including Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer, one of the foremost painters in the history of America. Considered a masterpiece, it has never before been included with this traveling exhibition. The painting conveys the essence of the nation' s spirit and is recognizable to everyone. It is so highly valued that it will be transported separately from the other paintings in the exhibition," said Museum Deputy Director, Dr. Aaron De Groft.

An American Anthem takes us from our roots as a colony -- an era that reveals our deep dependence on British tastes -- through the Post-War WWII era when artists fled conditions in Europe and converged on New York City, and finally to the cutting edge of American contemporary art.

The breadth and depth of American art in this exhibition includes colonial portraiture by the Peale brothers, including a portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale; 20th century landscapes by Martin Johnson Heade and Frederick Edwin Church; and American Impressionist paintings by Edward Potthast and William Merritt Chase, who were favored by Gilded Age patrons. (left: Edward Hopper, Pennsylvania Coal Town, 1947, oil on canvas, 948-0-115, 28 x 40 inches, Museum Purchase, The Butler Institute of Art)

A contrasting view was expressed in the early 20th century by realists George Luks, John Sloan, and Edward Hopper in their paintings of American life in cities. Early American modernism is represented by Arthur G. Doves, who emphasized the elemental forms of nature, and Stuart Davis who used abstract forms to express excitement and movement. Post-War paintings are represented by New York School artist Adolph Gottlieb and Abstract Expressionist, Joan Mitchell. Beginning in the 1960s, pop artists Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg declared that all elements of daily life could convey meaning in painting and dramatically used commercial printing techniques to express popular culture. Contemporary works by Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz, from as late as the 1980s and 1990s, culminate this historic exhibition.

These paintings come from the first and foremost museum dedicated solely to the collection of American art, The Butler Institute of American Art, founded in 1919 in Youngstown, Ohio, by steel industrialist Joseph G. Butler, Jr. The Institute was a gift to the people of his hometown, and included the centerpiece of his collection, Snap the Whip, much as John Ringling left his masterpiece museum to the people of Florida.

This exhibition brings to a successful conclusion a year long celebration of American art and sets the stage for next season's focus on art around the world. In October 2002, the Ringling Museum will be the first American venue to showcase the work of the most famous sculptor in the history of France, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). "We are very proud to increase the scope of our offerings by hosting exhibitions like the Butler's American Anthem. Now that Cà d'Zan is restored, our goal is to enrich the cultural experience offered at the Ringling Museum of Art and to bring more important exhibitions like this to the region," said De Groft.

Following is "wall text" from the exhibition, including introduction panel text, photo panel text and text from four section panels:

 

Panel 1: Introduction

An American Anthem.: 300 Years of Painting from The Butler Institute of American Art presents fifty-five premier paintings selected from the very first museum in the country dedicated solely to the collection of American Art. Opened in 1919 in Youngstown, Ohio, by steel industrialist Joseph G. Butler, Jr., the Institute has continuously added to its holdings, expanding from its original seventy-five works to a collection nationally noted for its comprehensiveness.

The paintings included in this exhibition exemplify the major cultural and artistic concerns faced by American artists, from the influence of British art on the colonial artist to America's stellar rise to leadership in the international art world of the late twentieth century. The works help us to understand the many ways in which art participates in the complex concerns of its day. Paintings are often viewed as the most tangible reflections of the time and culture in which they were produced. However, paintings can also be credited with a much more active role in history. In a world that is so strongly visual, paintings can solidify a viewer's grasp of abstract concepts or define an event they have experienced. The works selected for An American Anthem were chosen because in their sensitivity and variety -- their directness, originality, or sophistication -- they reveal this nation's very rich tradition of artistic achievement.

The Butler Institute of American Art is proud to present An American Anthem through the very generous support of The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc.

 

Panel 2: Untitled

[photo of JGButler]

In erecting this building and organizing the Butler Art Institute, I have sought to provide for the people of this city an opportunity to enjoy the best work of American artists, and my hope is that it will tend to create a wider knowledge and love of art in this community where the purely useful has been largely promoted and the artistic and intellectual somewhat neglected.... We lead the world in genius for invention, efficiency and ability. There is no reason why we cannot eventually do so in the genius for art and literature.
Joseph Green Butler, Jr., 1925

Joseph Butler, born within two hundred feet of a blast furnace, earned his wealth through the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company and the Briar Hill Steel Company. In his political and civic activities Butler was the epitome of a conservative member of his Gilded Age culture. However, his interest in art was quite advanced. In 1915 he organized an exhibition in Youngstown that included such artists as Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, and Auguste Rodin. A similar independence and energy marked the establishment of the Institute. In 1917, within twenty-four hours after his first collection was tragically destroyed in a fire, Butler had contacted the renown architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to design the classical Beaux Arts structure that continues to house the Institute's collection today. Butler quickly grew into his role of founder, becoming a passionate patron of American art. His purchases and letters clearly convey a collector with a confident eye -- and history has more than once shown his confidence well-founded. In fact, a number of works in An American Anthem were also included in the Institute's 1919 inaugural exhibition.

 

Panel 3: A Young Nation

Paintings from the colonial era and early decades of nationhood reveal the many influences and concerns faced by artists. The American colonies were deeply dependent on British culture, and the styles and poses used in portraiture reveal this debt. However, with the creation of the United States, Americans also employed their art to assert an independent national identity. Portraits of war heroes and founding statesmen were created to inspire and educate the young nation's population.

Due to something of an "inferiority complex," the United States also sought an element of its culture that could be considered equal to, or even better than, anything of its kind in Europe. The American wilderness, imagined to exist untouched by civilization since its divine creation, was just such an element. Americans saw in their land a reflection of the nation's auspicious beginnings and promising future that Europe, with its weight of long-past civilizations, did not have. This early interest in wilderness landscape was given visual form by the painters of the Hudson River School, often considered the country's first original artistic movement.

Americans also thought of themselves as distinctly different from their European counterparts. The "American character" was imagined to be dynamic, ambitious, independent, confident and, most of all, a "commoner." Genre painting, which depicts scenes of everyday life, visualized this character through easily identifiable types, such as the self-sufficient woodsman or the entrepreneurial street boy.

Panel 4: The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age, or the decades at the end of the nineteenth century, was in many ways a high point and low-point for the United States. Following the intense political sectionalism of the 1850s and the deep emotional crisis of the Civil War, the nation experienced one of the most rapid economic booms in its history. Industrial wealth poured into the pockets of the country's elite, giving them a buying power and sense of accomplishment new to the nation. Increased international travel also provided American art patrons with a greater awareness of the range of aesthetics than ever before.

Americans desired paintings that asserted their newly achieved status. Many artists and patrons were influenced by the Aesthetic Movement, in which objects were appreciated for their purely aesthetic qualities. The use of rich colors, dashing brushwork, and elegant props offered a lavish display of the patron's cultured tastes. Images that conveyed the vastness of the American West offered a mirror of the immense power and vitality that Gilded Age patrons wanted to see in themselves. American artists also brought back from Europe the style of the French Impressionists, painting leisure scenes in the full effects of direct sun and atmosphere with loose brushstrokes of dazzling, unmixed colors.

In contrast to the ambition and materialism associated with the Gilded Age, some artists produced works that evoke the loss of spiritual substance and misdirection felt by many during the era. A sense of quietude and introversion pervades some works, thought by many to be a visual response to the emotional and cultural tensions of the Civil War. Other works are barely readable through their thickly painted compositions, offering a sense of mystery and escape from the demands of the era.

Panel 5: "The Eight" and After

With their sensational 1908 exhibition at Macbeth Galleries in New York City, "The Eight" brought a bold new vision to American art. The group, led by Robert Henri, introduced a realism focused on the contemporary lives of working-class urban citizens. Growing out of their early work as newspaper illustrators, "The Eight" saw the streets of the city as a place of great vibrancy and energy. As Henri stated, "the artists who produce the most satisfactory art are those who are absorbed in the civilization in which they are living."

Later American artists, experiencing the upheavals of the Great Depression, used the innovations of "The Eight" to depict the concerns and issues faced by their own generation. Some continued to explore the urban streets in order to convey the isolation urbanity often engenders. For Social Realists the streets harbored labor gangs and impoverished immigrant masses who embodied the social inequalities of American life. Painting for them was a mode of social commentary and biting criticism. In contrast, the Regionalists left the urban centers to explore the working-class life found in the rural streets of America.

Only five years after the introduction of "The Eight," the 1913 Armory Show in New York City introduced European avant-garde painting-such as Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism -- to the United States. A group of American artists, centered around the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, took such styles to heart and began to create their own modernism. Several Modernists strove to depict landscape with a primal directness that expressed the artist's response to the elemental forms of nature. Others expressed their experiences of modern life through the formal elements of painting. Bright, unmodulated colors in staccato-like rhythms suggest the rapid pace of urban living. Or, cool colors and sleek, elegant lines convey the machine power of modern industry.

Panel 6: Post-War Painting

Artists fleeing conditions in Europe settled in New York City, which soon became an international center for post-war developments in the art world. As a result of the shattering events of World War II, many artists felt that the traditional figurative mode of painting was unable to express the psychological experience of life. Such artists looked to various modes of abstraction to express their concerns. Many New York School artists drew on the universal themes of ancient myths and the unmediated forms of tribal art to create their imagery. Abstract Expressionists sought to create a form of painting that was unencumbered by elements not essential to painting, such as narrative or illusionism. They explored painting as a record of the artist's immediate and spontaneous gestures over the entire surface of the canvas.

Beginning in the 1960s, artists reacted to this essentialist move in painting, and figurative representation was reconsidered among avant-garde artists. Some artists declared that elements of popular culture could convey meaning as well as abstract gestures and esoteric myths. These Pop Artists recycled easily recognizable images from daily life and used commercial printing techniques -- such as silkscreen and photo-transfer processes -- to create their "fine" art. In doing so, they questioned traditional distinctions made between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" art.

Other figurative painters continued to explore traditional subjects through styles indebted to abstraction. Though these painters created a distinct sense of a specific place or person, they employed elements of abstraction in the surface patterns and the flattened or disjunctive colors to heighten the meaning of their work. Such abstract elements often act in these works as a visual metaphor for the experiences of twentieth-century life.

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