The Spirit of the Modern: Drawings and Graphics by Maltby Sykes

January 15 - March 20, 2005



On his occasional visits southward to Taxco, Maltby would have seen this story in its purest plastic form on the magnificent frescoed walls of the Cortez Palace in Cuernavaca, completed six years earlier, but containing little if any of the Marxist iconography and socialist message which Rivera stubbornly infused, with sensational results, into many of his murals in Mexico and the United States -- including those very ones in the Hotel Reforma. To Maltby, as to subsequent history, this was unimportant to the figure of Rivera the artist, who, it would seem, called up at least one element of the very title of this exhibit, the "spirit of the modern." Together with his mythic imagination and powerful cultural synthesis, Rivera had not rejected the past but had abstracted it in new forms, finding a unique personal statement through resurrecting a pre-Columbian pictorial vocabulary and fusing it, as Maltby saw, with his classical European training in draftsmanship, painting, and technical execution.

What all of this meant in the evolution of Maltby's art is unclear. Participating in a creative event in which national identity could be fused with mythic images was unavailable to an American artist. As he himself carefully set down, his own personal statement would gradually be pursued in settings other than Mexico, through lithographic images of increasing abstraction. Still, though he worked in human forms less and less after the thirties, he occasionally sought out a mythos of wide and haunting presence in our western imagination: the enigmatic Old Testament figure of Jacob; the perilous flight of Icarus; the death-like danger of Cyclops and the Minotaur threatening the heroic Odysseus and Theseus; the blind, but all-seeing brotherhood of Samson and Oedipus. It would be fanciful perhaps to associate this creative impulse with Rivera's long shadow, but in the most significant public commission he undertook that influence is indisputable. In a mural display for a local bank in Auburn, executed in the early sixties, he worked out in extensive correspondence with architect and patron a mathematical distribution of subject and space not at all unlike the squares calculated by Rivera for positioning in the cartoon for his great mural panels. Moreover, thirty years after that experience, Maltby stated that his own mural was a challenge to adapt the fresco technique he learned from the master to multi-metal lithographic plates. Engraved with a startling accuracy unmatched elsewhere in his career, the fifteen plates depict a brief history of international coinage, including coins from the four governments that have ruled the state of Alabama, together with the mathematical accounting symbols proper to that house of commerce (figure 2). [2]

Though a departure from his characteristic mode, the mural was nevertheless but one of his artistic explorations which Maltby recycled back into his teaching. In this case, by walking his students some two blocks from their studio, he could not only illustrate the unusual result of applied lithographic techniques, but also the scholarly research and subject selection that artists must often bring together -- as here, where the majestic images of claims on wealth throughout human history look down on hundreds of ordinary people engaged each day in their fiscal transactions. For these and hundreds of other students, Maltby was a role model long before we began to use that term. They remember that although his approval was empowering and they never wanted to disappoint him in their work, he was a gentle disciplinarian who created an atmosphere that encouraged one's best. Always introducing them to new movements in the art world, he steadfastly refused to impose his own personal attitudes. "Teaching them your way," he once remarked, "is to train them for obsolescence." Many an undergraduate would recall his typical classroom gesture of hitching up his pants with his elbows kept close to his body, "like a printmaker, habitually with ink on his hands." But those students of longer acquaintance, those whom he would often challenge to find a proper direction in their own work, knew that some of his finest pieces were completed in the midst of a demanding teaching schedule, often three different courses in a given term.

Maltby was born in a Mississippi town with a Scottish name, less than an hour's drive from the birthplace and home of that state's most famous son of the twentieth century, William Faulkner, who once remarked that the subject of his writing was always his encounter with the world. Maltby's statement that "artists are witnesses of their time" is, I think, comparable to Faulkner's. He was then affirming his sense of responsibility to use in his art the methods of contemporary technology, a creative lithographic triumph recorded in many of the works in this exhibition. However, as we adopt that mood of quiet repose and reflection relevant to the unique pleasure of looking at pictures, we may find recorded here the possibility of a wider application. To be sure, we witness reminders of our time in Maltby's impressions of World War II, much on our minds these days, and of the new space age science. But, within the enclosure of those thirty-year parameters, we are allowed-invited-to witness his time as well: to see in these abstractions of the multiple landscapes of experience his life encountered, the constant renewal of an artistic vision. "Come on in" he might say to all of us, "I've some things to show you." (figure 3)


1. "Recollections of a Lithographile," The Tamarind Papers 6, no. 2 (1983): 40-47; "Diego Rivera and the Hotel Reforma Murals," Archives of American Art Journal 25, nos. 1-2 (1985): 29-42.

2. The mural was commissioned for the new Auburn Bank building; 8 x 14 feet, fifteen steel panels 32 inches square, completed in 1963


Editor's note: Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Bonnie Ramsey and Rebecca Yates of the communications department of the Georgia Museum of Art for their assistance providing texts for this project.


Go to page: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Georgia Museum of Art in Resource Library.

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.

Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.