The Spirit of the Modern: Drawings and Graphics by Maltby Sykes
January 15 - March 20, 2005
Foreword to Maltby Sykes catalogue
In her essay in this catalogue, Romita Ray remarks on the period in Maltby Sykes's career as a printmaker when he made self-referential prints, works whose images revealed and celebrated the science of their technique. Ever the teacher, he wanted the very works of art he produced to manifest the laborious process of their creation. Viewers of his work, some of whom may indeed have negative preconceptions about non-representative art, may discern Sykes's didactic purpose even in his late career after he disavowed realism. Perhaps the greatest of printmakers, Rembrandt van Rijn, left his fingerprints both literally and figuratively apparent in his work; in the last phase of his career, Sykes made the image itself a concrete metaphor of artistic process.
Although he traveled extensively and worked with arguably two of the most influential artists of the twentieth century in their fields, Diego Rivera and Stanley William Hayter, Maltby Sykes never treated Auburn, Alabama as a backwater. Born in the deepest South, he chose to spend his working life there as well, and, although he was a highly accomplished technician and articulate spokesman for a sophisticated aesthetic of printmaking, he foreswore the glittery trappings of the cosmopolite artist in favor of the academic garb of the university professor. In Sykes's case, such was more acceptable mufti than the traditional smock of the portraitist, which he believed he had to don occasionally from economic necessity.
Although attuned to the trends and movements of Paris and New York, Sykes was a force for change in the smaller worlds of Auburn University, Alabama, and the South. During a relatively long career, he entered exhibitions throughout the state and region; he knew the artists of the Dixie Art Colony during its early years and, although not strictly an adherent of the Southern Scene, he was an active participant in the Southern States Art League's circuit exhibition. The story of the art department at Auburn during these years has yet to be written, but when it is, Sykes and his colleagues, among them Frank Applebee, Joseph R. Marino-Merlo, and Taylor Littleton (of the English Department) will receive their due for effecting significant change in the cultural and pedagogical history of Alabama. Maltby Sykes's career in Alabama during the twentieth century is analogous in some ways to Lamar Dodd's in Georgia and John McCrady's in Louisiana. All were identified as the leading practitioners and proponents of the visual arts in their respective states.
Thus, Maltby Sykes has deserved the monographic treatment accorded those other artists, and the Georgia Museum of Art is pleased to have organized this study of his graphic works. We are grateful to our curator, Marilyn Laufer of Auburn University, who embraced this project with enthusiasm and diligence. She acknowledges as do we the generous assistance of Helen Baggett Carlisle, who is a vocal and articulate advocate on behalf of Sykes and his legacy; Brenda Mattson, who has undertaken the organization of Sykes's personal papers on behalf of the estate; Sykes's late wife Marjorie Tyre and his stepdaughter Barbara Pritchard for allowing staff of the museum to study Sykes's art in their collection; Patricia Phagan, who helped me initiate the project some years ago; and Cynthia Payne, my assistant, who helped organize a great deal of material. Bonnie Ramsey and Rebecca Yates of our communications department and our preparators and registrars, Greg Benson, Lanora Pierce, Larry Forte, and Tricia Miller, have, as usual, given excellent care to the realization of the project. Of special note has been the work of our assistant registrar Christy Sinksen, who helps us all toe the line. Professor Laufer and I are grateful to her fellow essayists Romita Ray and Taylor Littleton; to the lenders of works to the exhibition; and to our colleagues at the participating venues. These contributors realize, as do I, that this exhibition and catalogue represent one part of a promise gradually to be fulfilled, that is, to tell the varied story of Southern art, a tale too long languishing in obscurity.
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