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The American Spirit: Paintings by Mort Künstler

August 27, 2006 - November 5, 2006 


In The American Spirit: Paintings by Mort Künstler, at Nassau County Museum of Art (NCMA) from August 27 through November 5, 2006, the theme of American history is arranged chronologically, spanning the early days of the nation from the Revolution to the Space Age. This reflects the major project that has engaged artist Mort Künstler throughout his career. Regarded widely as the leading history painter of today, Künstler, who works in a heightened realist vein, is renowned for his paintings' fidelity to their subjects and their capacity to vividly convey the narrative that has animated our nation's growth. The American Spirit is an original exhibition organized for NCMA by the museum's chief curator, Franklin Hill Perrell.

Künstler's work is esteemed for its drama and artistry and for the extraordinary level of authenticity that results from the artist's intense research. He is regarded as the world's foremost Civil War artist: Dr. James I Robertson, Jr., the dean of Civil War historians and author of Stonewall Jackson, said "To study his paintings is to simply see history alive....none captures the human element, the aura of leadership, the sense of being there and sharing in the drama quite like Mort Künstler." Attesting to the artist's popularity with the public, NCMA's 1998 exhibition, The Civil War: The Paintings of Mort Künstler, broke all of the museum's previous attendance records and still stands as one of the museum's top-drawing shows ever.

The artist is widely acknowledged for his links to the Golden Age of Illustration, to artists such as Rockwell and Leyendecker, but as this exhibition will demonstrate, Künstler's work is also positioned within the larger context of American art. His techniques and style stands upon the foundation of a long-honored American tradition of realism, the premise of descriptive literalism.

Künstler studied art at Brooklyn College, UCLA and the Pratt Institute. He became a highly successful illustrator, receiving coveted assignments from books and magazine covers such as Newsweek, Saturday Evening Post, Mad Magazine and Boy's Life. It was his work for National Geographic, where he was creating highly accurate representations of historical subjects that pointed the way to his convincing depictions of scenes in American history. An assignment from CBS-TV to do the paintings for the miniseries, The Blue and The Gray, began Künstler's close association with the Civil War. The High Water Mark, his painting for that series, is considered the most accurate and exciting rendering ever of the battle at Gettysburg. It was unveiled at Gettysburg National Military Park Museum in 1988 in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the battle.

Mort Künstler will participate in several events at NCMA during the course of this exhibition: On August 27 and September 10 he will be present for Meet the Artist events during which he will sign calendars, prints, posters, books and the museum catalogue. On September 6, Künstler will present a lecture, The American Spirit: My Career as a Painter of American History, and on October 15 he will unveil a new Revolutionary War print, The World Turned Upside Down, which portrays the British surrender at Yorktown. Two exciting military reenactments will be held on the museum grounds: the Revolutionary War on September 16 and the Civil War on November 5.

On October 7, NCMA's chief curator, Franklin Hill Perrell, presents a lecture titled Rebellious Realists, from Manet to Hopper. The museum is also offering several Tea & Tour events featuring an introduction by Museum Director Constance Schwartz, followed by an exclusive docent-led exhibition tour and a menu of tea, sandwiches, scones and sweets in the Museum Café. For further information on these and other events, or to register, log onto nassaumuseum.com or call (516) 484-9338, ext. 12.


(above: Mort Künstler: The New World - ©2006 Oil on canvas)


(above: Mort Künstler: The World Turned Upside Down - ©2006, Oil on canvas)


(above: Mort Künstler: Oklahoma Land Rush - ©1988, Oil on canvas)


(above: Mort Künstler: Brief Encounter - ©2005, Oil on canvas)



(above: Mort Künstler: Custer's Last Stand - ©1986, Oil on canvas)

(above: Mort Künstler: Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, April 12, 1981, 7:00:10 EST, ©1981 Oil on canvas)


Wall panels for the exhibition:


The exhibition, The American Spirit: The Paintings
of Mort Künstler, focuses on two catalysts -- history
and America -- neither of which generally figures high
on the list of themes explored by contemporary
artists. They are, nevertheless, ideas that once
enjoyed great prestige in the realm of art. Here,
Mort Künstler presents historical narration in
representations involving great mastery.
To study the relationship of art and history is to
subject the viewer to a veritable litany on history
painting. The common denominator in the works
selected for this exhibition, a journey through
American history, from the outset poses the
historical question in relation to time, space and
location. On view, not only is our nation the
privileged scene of historical narrative, but its
actual protagonist. The paintings represent a
geographical demarcation, a multiple of narratives
involving political and military events, treaties,
battles, sieges, surrenders, triumphs and heroes.
Through Mort Künstler's talented eye and hand that
animate each scene with sustained research, there is
a constant shift between history and memory,
testimony from heirs, information from historical
and cultural curators, and all the factors that are
involved in creating a clearly defined moment.
It will be noted that these paintings are historical
borrowings, fabricated on behalf of the
representation of the historic events themselves,
and they are all controlled by the artist, Mort
Künstler. In a style comparable to those artists of
the Golden Age of Illustration, Künstler's paintings
are a documented history of his own invention based
on the research and reconstruction of a time that is
not a face-to-face encounter. The paintings are
renderings of an original moment built on the
illusion of the artist's having been there, of being
in the presence of the event at the time of its
actual occurrence. In each work, Künstler develops a
reconstruction, a re-enactment, a tradition that is
especially popular when it comes to the American
Civil War. People today continue to dress up in
Yankee and Confederate uniforms and replay the
decisive moments of these conflicts.
Mort Künstler is the absent narrator of the painted
saga on view and part of the aim of this exhibition
is to identify some of the strategies that the
artist employs to convey historical information
without being engulfed by it. The viewer therefore
examines the works from a dual perspective, focusing
at once on the story of America and the various ways
in which the individual historical narrative is evoked.
* * *
We want to express our gratitude to Mort Künstler
for his gracious cooperation in helping to develop
this exhibition, which brings to life the proud
history of America. To Richard Lynch, President, and
Howard Shaw, Vice President of Hammer Galleries, we
especially offer our gratitude for their ongoing
friendship, support, and sponsorship. We also wish
to extend our appreciation to the Nassau Educators
Federal Credit Union for their sponsorship of this
exhibition as well, which will provide new insights
into American history for our youthful audiences.
The public institutions and private collectors who
have so generously lent their works of art to this
presentation are our museum's major resource and we
are most grateful to them for their generosity.
Without the abiding interest and support of the
sponsors of this exhibition, the collectors, and
Hammer Galleries, this exhibition could not have
been possible.
Constance Schwartz

rev. 8/31/06



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