Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 2, 2008 with permission of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, directly through either this phone number or web address:
Cornell Collects: A Celebration of American Art from the Collections of Alumni and Friends
Part I: Painting, Sculpture, and Works on Paper
By Nancy Allyn Jarzombek
This exhibition celebrates American art collected by alumni and friends of Cornell University. Through their generous loans, these collectors are helping the Johnson Museum gain wider recognition not only as a center for the visual arts but also for the network of Cornellians behind the scenes who make important contributions to the life of the museum. The Johnson Museum is fortunate to have a special constituency of alumni and friends at a time when federal funding is dwindling and new legislation further restricts tax deductions that may be taken on charitable donations. In this era, we, and museums across the nation, depend more and more on private individuals who share a love of the arts and who are genuinely philanthropic in their support.
Researching "Cornell Collects" has been a lesson in appreciating the close relationship between a collector and a museum. Just as a museum's exhibitions and permanent collection can instruct a collector, the reverse can also be true. The individuality of each collector's enthusiasms and tastes can be an unexpected breath of fresh air in the sometimes conservative atmosphere of the curatorial office. On the one hand, a museum provides a place for collectors and art lovers from all walks of life to train the eye and the mind by looking at artwork of the highest quality. On the other hand, a collector has the potential for transforming a museum's collection. Public collections would not be what they are today without the donations of collectors -- donations that have made many of the nation's masterpieces available to new generations of museum visitors.
One goal of "Cornell Collects" is to bring together selections from many different collections to reveal a rich and diverse field of two centuries of American art. A second goal is to present collecting as a multifaceted and highly individualistic activity. Some collectors have pieces by artists who are well established in the annals of American art history, such as Benjamin West, George Inness, Edward Hopper, and Helen Frankenthaler. Others seek works by artists who have been largely overlooked, such as Aaron Draper Shattuck, who was successful during his lifetime but fell into obscurity after a serious illness kept him from painting after 1888. Some works -- Frederic Remington's spectacular bronze Coming Through the Rye (cat. no. 124) and Georgia O'Keeffe's haunting Dark Iris, No.2 (cat. no. 114)-are sure to draw a crowd; others reflect a collector's ability to go beyond what is popular at a given time, such as the hauntingly expressive A House in the Night (cat. no. 24) by Oscar Bluemner or the probing figure study Fin de Partie (cat. no. 149) by Dorothea Tanning. Drawing together the expected and the unexpected, this exhibition serves as a tribute to the individual collectors as well as to the complex fabric of two centuries of American art.
Eighteenth-Century American Art
A fine arts tradition of painting and sculpture was slow to take root in colonial America. Lacking schools of art, salons, and galleries, the colonies offered little for the young aspiring artist, save a limited market for portraiture and a glimpse of European paintings through books and engravings. "The people generally regard [painting] no more than any other useful trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a Carpenter tailor or shew maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World. Which is not a little Mortifying to me," lamented John Singleton Copley to fellow American Benjamin West in 1767. To make a name for themselves, American artists with ambition had no alternative but to go to Europe to learn their profession.
Benjamin West was the first American-born artist to achieve fame and fortune, but he did so wholly in the context of European art. Largely self-taught, he showed sufficient artistic talent to capture the attention of a few wealthy Philadelphians, who sent him to Italy in 1760. West remained in Europe for the rest of his life. He established a successful practice in London, and in 1772 he was appointed history painter to King George III. His studio was a gathering place for young Americans eager to become artists themselves. Although his primary duty in the royal court was to paint large compositions of historical subjects, he also painted portraits such as Portrait of Lord Carmarthen (cat. no. 153). West fit so well into the English painting tradition that he succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy of Art in 1792.
By the early decades of the nineteenth century, artists returning from Europe quickly discovered that one of the central premises of the European tradition of painting could not be transplanted into American soil. In Europe an artist's most important paintings -- those that would establish his or her reputation -- were large complex compositions of historical subjects usually containing allegorical or mythological references. A wealthy, status-conscious aristocracy provided a ready market for these ambitious works, purchasing them to furnish palaces and public buildings throughout Europe. In the new American republic, however, there was little market for history paintings. Public architecture was simple and restrained in style, providing few places appropriate for large canvases. Moreover, the young nation was more interested in looking to the future than to the past and placed a greater emphasis on the new than on the old.
As Americans settled the country, they began to see the landscape as a symbol for the new nation. The beauty and grandeur of the land captured the imaginations of young artists, and landscape painting, not history painting, became the subject that embodied the new republic's national identity. Critics encouraged artists to paint landscapes, and an enthusiastic public purchased them for their homes. In recent decades scholars and collectors have focused with great interest on nineteenth-century landscape paintings. Not only are many of them beautifully painted, but as a group they form a coherent expression of national pride. Many collectors find themselves shoulder to shoulder with scholars in the field, looking through documents, catalogs, nineteenth-century periodicals, and other materials, in pursuit of clues to better understand the full significance of their acquisitions.
John W. Casilear was one of the artists who expressed the uniquely American interest in landscape painting. Like many who showed artistic talent at a young age, Casilear was apprenticed to an engraver. He became highly skilled, making engravings of paintings and of currency. Desiring to become a painter, however, he made his first trip to Europe in 1840. Swiss Lake (cat. no. 34) was probably composed from a composite of sketches and painted after his return to the United States. Casilear alternated between Swiss subjects and scenes in upstate New York. His paintings, delicate and meticulous, were highly praised, and by the mid-1850s his reputation as a painter gave him the freedom to leave the engraving business and turn completely to painting landscapes.
Like Casilear many American artists traveled abroad and alternated between European and American subjects before settling down to paint American landscapes. Benjamin Champney, who met Casilear in Paris in 1841, traveled through Italy and Switzerland before returning to Boston in 1846. He is best known for his panoramic scenes of the White Mountains. The Artist's Studio (cat. no. 37), however, gives us an intimate glimpse of his backyard, probably in North Conway, New Hampshire. Jasper Cropsey spent six years in London absorbing the lessons of English landscape artists along with the writings of John Ruskin, who urged a generation of artists to be meticulously faithful in their depiction of nature. The Hudson River at the Palisades (cat. no. 42) is an example of the detailed autumnal scenes for which Cropsey became famous. Samuel Colman painted landscapes along the Hudson River valley before going to Europe for the first time at the age of twenty-eight. Attracted to exotic subjects in Tangiers and Spain, he adopted a looser handling of brushwork and a brighter palette. Upon his return to the United States, he took up landscape painting again, though with a more fluid style.
Around 1850 a group of Americans gravitated to Dusseldorf, Germany, attracted by German artists who were highly regarded for their precise draftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail. Worthington Whittredge, for example, studied in Dusseldorf for five years and then moved to Rome for three years before returning to the United States in 1859. He settled in New York City and made sketching trips through the Catskill Mountains. Inspired by the nature poetry of William Cullen Bryant, he painted a series of forest interiors such as Stream in Rocky Landscape (cat. no. 157).
George Inness abandoned the tight realism of mid-nineteenth-century landscape painting in favor of a more atmospheric style influenced by French painters in Barbizon, a town on the outskirts of the forest of Fontainebleau. Painting out-of-doors, Barbizon artists developed a loose brushy technique and highly keyed palette to capture the shimmering effects of light and shade in the landscape. Inness, absorbing these lessons, imbued his landscapes with a poetic spirit, as can be seen in Pinebrook, New Jersey (cat. no. 83). Other artists followed suit. Alexander H. Wyant started out painting in a detailed descriptive style. After a stroke led to paralysis of his right arm in 1873, he taught himself to use his left hand and developed a moodier, more painterly style influenced in part by his contact with Inness.
By the middle of the century, the traditions of painting and artistic training in the United States had developed to such an extent that not all artists felt obliged to study in Europe to be successful. Aaron Draper Shattuck learned to paint in Boston and New York City. He started painting portraits but switched to landscapes after making a sketching trip to the White Mountains in 1854. Like most landscape painters of his generation, he made sketching trips during summers and painted in his New York City studio during the winter. But in 1870 he left the city for a small town in Connecticut and concentrated on making paintings of local scenes, such as New England Landscape (cat. no. 137), which depicts the Farmington River near his home. Ralph Albert Blakelock was primarily self-taught. Instead of going to Europe, he went west in 1869, returning to New York two years later with memories and materials that became the basis for many paintings. Pioneer Home (cat. no. 23) shows Blakelock working in a descriptive style characteristic of his early career; he later developed a more intuitive, highly personalized style that expressed his emotional response to wilderness life.
Nineteenth-Century Genre and Still Life Painting
American artists explored a variety of subjects other than landscapes throughout the nineteenth century. Scenes of everyday life, commonly called genre paintings, appealed to a broad audience. Pals (cat. no. 29), by John George Brown, is an example of a particularly popular type that idealized childhood. It depicts two city boys, who, if perhaps a little mischievous, are nonetheless happy and innocent. J. G. Brown was very successful with this sort of painting, and his pictures were widely reproduced in periodicals and engravings, which explains the copyright mark near his signature.
Still life painting was also flourishing at mid-century. Its origins lie in works by the remarkable Peale family of artists -- James, Rubens, Raphael, and Rembrandt Peale who dominated the art scene in early-nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Their influence was felt by John F. Francis, a Philadelphian who began as a portrait painter but turned to still life painting by 1850. The simple controlled composition of Still Life with Pears (cat. no. 63), its restrained palette, and the delight it seems to express in its ovals and spherical shapes all recall still lifes painted by the Peale family.
Two paintings, Still Life -- Flowers by Severin Roesen (cat. no. 127) and Still Life with Grapes, Bird's Nest and White Mouse by George Forster (cat. no. 62), show a style of still life painting heavily influenced by the German tradition. Severin Roesen was born in Germany and trained as a porcelain painter. He probably came to New York City in 1848, a time of political upheaval in his native land. In their complicated arrangements, naturalistic details, and brilliant clarity, Roesen's still life paintings reflect his German training. Little is known about George Forster, but most probably he, too, was German. He may have settled in America, or he may have traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States. Still Life with Grapes, Bird's Nest and White Mouse is a good example of his small-scale, meticulously painted compositions, which included fruits, birds' nests, eggs, mice, and lizards.
William Michael Harnett painted a very different type of still life painting. Born in Ireland and brought to Philadelphia as a child, he first painted conventional flower and fruit subjects. But in 1877 he introduced a new subject, "writing table" pictures, which depicted books, pens, pipes, letters, and other materials haphazardly piled on a desk or tabletop. Harnett explained that he painted objects in his studio because he was too poor to hire models, but to dismiss his choice of subject as historical accident is to overlook Harnett's contribution to a profound change in the direction of painting. Whereas flower and fruit subjects customarily reflect a sense of beauty shared by a middle class that purchased such paintings to decorate their homes, Harnett's "writing table" pictures, in which each item is chosen because it is used, read, or smoked by one individual, are laden with memories of the past and convey a sense of existential solitariness.
Nineteenth-century sculpture is not well represented in the collections of Cornell alumni, but the single piece from this period chosen for the exhibition is interesting for the way it connects the artist to a major writer of the era. Augustus Saint-Gaudens met Robert Louis Stevenson in 1887, and his enthusiasm for Stevenson's work led him to ask the writer to pose for a bas-relief portrait sculpture. Work began immediately. Stevenson was sick with tuberculosis and sat for Saint-Gaudens propped up with pillows, reading. The delicacy of the modeling in the resulting portrait recalls Saint-Gaudens's early training as a cameo cutter and his love of early Italian Renaissance bas-reliefs, from which he had made a series of plaster casts for himself when in Italy from 1871 to 1874.
Stevenson wrote about the experience of sitting for Saint-Gaudens in a letter to the artist's son: " ... the lean flushed man in bed, ... was in a state of mind extremely mingled and unpleasant; harassed with work which he thought he was not doing well, troubled with difficulties ... and yet looking forward to no less a matter than a voyage to the South Seas .... " In fact, Stevenson left for the South Seas before the bas-relief was finished and Saint-Gaudens had to send a casting of it to him there.
The Stevenson bas-relief was one of the most popular that Saint-Gaudens produced. He made at least two versions, a rectangular format and a circular one, which he considered to be more successful. The piece in this exhibition is a slightly modified, reduced version of the circular format of the relief.
Paintings and Sculpture at the Turn of the Century
In 1893 the historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced the end of an era in American history when he declared that the frontier had finally expanded to meet the Pacific Ocean. As though galvanized by Turner's announcement, many artists went west to make a visual record of the land and its people. Joseph Henry Sharp, for example, had learned to paint in Belgium and had traveled frequently to Europe, but he looked to the American West for subject matter. In 1902 he left a teaching post at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, set up a studio at the Crow Reservation in Montana, and devoted the rest of his career to producing paintings of American Indians.
Images of the West reached new heights of popularity in the work of Frederic Remington. Remington made his first trip west in 1880 and at that time decided to use his art to record a world that he believed was vanishing. One of a new breed of artist-illustrators who made drawings of current events for magazines and newspapers, Remington sent pictures to Harper's Magazine. By 1890 he was one of the most popular illustrators of the American West. From 1890 to 1891 he covered the Indian wars; in 1898 he was sent to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War. Captain Grimes on El Pozo Hill (cat. no. 123) illustrates the dramatic turning point in the war, painted from observations made very close to the front lines. In Remington's own words, " ... up El Paso Hill [sic] went the horses of Grimes battery under whip and spur .... Grimes fired a few shells toward Santiago, and directly came a screaming shrapnel from the Spanish lines .... Directly came the warning scream of No.2, and we dropped and hugged the ground like starfish. Bang! right over us it exploded."
In 1895 Remington turned his considerable energies to sculpture. His first figures were immediately successful, and as he warmed to the new material his work quickly became more complex. Coming Through the Rye (cat. no. 124) is a tour de force, depicting four horses at a spectacular full gallop.
By the 1890s Americans were entering the mainstream of European art more fully than ever before. At a time when the United States was establishing itself politically, economically, and culturally in an international context, many American artists struggled to rid themselves of provincialism and produce works that compared favorably with the best of European art. Some artists went to Paris where there was a large colony of Americans, among them Elizabeth Nourse. Nourse established a successful career in France showing her work alongside European counterparts at the annual exhibition in Paris. In 1895 she became the first woman elected to the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts. Though she remained loyal to America in sentiment, she returned for a short visit only once, in 1893. Like other expatriates, she found her niche in Europe and saw her contribution to art in the context of European painting. Also in Paris for a time, Henry Clews abandoned a career in business and turned instead to painting and then sculpture. Working in a studio in the Montmartre area, he was influenced by the vigorous realist sculpture of Auguste Rodin, with whom he was acquainted. In 1911 he returned to the United States and produced the freely handled and expressive bronze head included in the exhibition.
During the 1870s Edouard Manet, Hilaire-Germain, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and others challenged the rules of traditional art. They pushed conventional notions of realism to new extremes to focus on matters of visual perception and especially color; in subject matter they sought to relate their paintings to the spontaneity and immediacy of modern life. American artists were attracted to impressionism, though less to its underlying principles than to its bright shimmering style, which they quickly adopted and brought to the United States. By the 1890s, twenty years after its initial appearance in France, the impressionist style was very popular and accepted in even the conservative American galleries.
One of the most successful American impressionists was Childe Hassam. Raised near Boston, Hassam painted local scenes, working outdoors. In 1886 he went to Paris, and a year later he was painting with the bright colors and short dry brush strokes characteristic of impressionism. With other impressionists he shared a preference for street scenes and landscapes. After his return to the United States, he traveled through New England painting a variety of pictures, including Duke Street, Newport (cat. no. 76) and the Connecticut landscape Meadow and Stream (cat. no. 77).
Frank Benson, another American impressionist, went to Paris in 1883 and enrolled in the Academie Julian. When he returned to his native New England, he taught painting first in Maine and then at the Boston Museum School. Portrait of Leverett Saltonstall (cat. no. 19) is an example of Benson's mature impressionist style, painted out-of-doors at his summer home in North Haven, Maine.
Emil Carlsen and John F. Carlson, emigrants from Denmark and Sweden, respectively, were also influenced by impressionism, yet both retained a strong sense of form and structure in their paintings. Carlsen's specialty was still life painting, such as Blue and White (cat. no. 32), which reveals his interest in Asian objects and design. Carlson focused on New England landscapes, such as Flurries Over Mansfield (cat. no. 33), which was one of his personal favorites.
Impressionism dominated the conservative academic painting style well into the 1930s. Young artists such as Charles Webster Hawthorne and Gifford Beal studied with William Merritt Chase, a very successful artist who traversed both the loose impressionist idiom and a more expressive, brilliantly worked painting style. Hawthorne and Beal spent summers in Shinnecock, Long Island, where Chase painted his most impressionistic works; both artists painted impressionist-style paintings well into the twentieth century.
Early-Twentieth-Century Paintings and Sculpture
Impressionism, though radical when it first appeared in France, eventually settled into a conservative international style. However, the sequence of painting modes that followed -- expressionism, fauvism, cubism-rocked the art world into a new modernist era, and Americans in Paris found themselves in the center of a revolution in art. Many were caught up in the excitement and experimented with the new ideas, but those who pursued modernism in Paris were not well understood when they returned home. Although there were a few staunch supporters in America, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Duncan Phillips, artists working with modernist ideas sold few paintings and tended to work in relative isolation.
Artists came to terms with modernism in different ways. Max Weber, whose Sculptured Figure (cat. no. 152) shows him experimenting with cubism as early as 1911, developed his own style as he applied modernist ideas to his own expressive purposes. Alfred Maurer embraced fauvism wholeheartedly, painting brilliant energetic landscapes while in France, before World War I. When he returned to the United States, however, he became increasingly isolated and developed a highly idiosyncratic style. Head of a Woman (cat. no. 105) comes from a series of haunting expressionistic portraits of women done in the 1920s.
Connections between European and American modernism were reinforced by emigrant artists such as Alexander Archipenko, who worked with cubists in Paris between 1910 and 1919, making highly original wall constructions as well as cubist sculptures such as Egyptian Motif (cat. no. 5). Archipenko moved to the United States in 1923 and for the next four decades taught the tenets of modern art to young American art students.
In France and Germany the expressive power of a painting's formal elements -- shapes, lines, and color -- were explored by Henri Matisse and the fauves as well as by the Blaue Reiter artists in Munich loosely clustered around Wassily Kandinsky. A parallel development occurred in the United States. Oscar Bluemner, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O'Keeffe painted simplified forms abstracted from nature and used color to heighten the emotional intensity of their paintings. Dove experimented with the power of abstract forms to communicate emotions as early as 1910 and later combined abstract forms with recognizable landscape elements. Beyond Abstraction (cat. no. 55), painted at the end of his life, is an extraordinary summation of his career. In A House in the Night (cat. no. 24), Bluemner looked at an ordinary street scene and distorted the forms and heightened the color to express his own response to the subject. Dark Iris, No.2 (cat. no. 114) by O'Keeffe is one of a series of paintings in which she abstracted from flowers the sensuous qualities of their shapes and colors.
The work of Charles Sheeler and Morton Schamberg also shows the influence of modernism, but with a different, cooler sensibility. Sheeler and Schamberg were close friends. Photographers as well as painters, they shared a specific interest in the element of design underlying the structure of a composition. Cubism had a special impact on Sheeler, who, in paintings such as Neighbors (cat. no. 139), used its visual principles to organize space into a series of interlocking and overlapping planes. Between 1915 and 1917 Sheeler and Schamberg were part of a circle of writers and artists who met regularly at the home of art collector and bibliophile Walter C. Arensberg. One of the most influential figures in these discussions was Marcel Duchamp, visiting from France and a vocal proponent of an "anti-art" strain of modernism that would soon evolve into the Dada movement. In a proto-dadist idiom influenced by Duchamp's focus on common, everyday objects, Schamberg made the pastel drawing Composition (cat. no. 135) based on machinery reduced to simple geometric shapes. The brilliant color of the pastel undermines the banal subject, giving the drawing the richness and beauty of a flower.
Influenced by Duchamp during his visit to the United States, Man Ray was the champion of the Dada movement in New York City before he moved to Paris in 1921. Iconoclastic, irreverent, and intensely interested in modernism, Man Ray experimented with ways to express his new ideas. Although he remains best known for his innovative photographs, he worked in a variety of media. The collage Dadamade (cat. no. 100) mockingly reveals his roots in the Dada movement, whereas La Boite a Pandore (Pandora's Box, cat. no. 101) operates on a number of levels. The theme of Pandora's box has here been interpreted as an exaltation of womanhood with the woman depicted by a glass vial filled with fluid, placed into a wooden box. The box becomes irresistible as it invites the viewer to level it by centering the air bubble in the glass vial -- a process that once begun is never finished.
Responding to a different group of influences, sculptor John Gregory was attracted to the Art Nouveau movement and its revival of classical and mythological subjects. Woman with Porpoise (cat. no. 72) exemplifies an aesthetic for sleek stylization that led to the very popular Art Deco movement of the 1930s.
Not all artists were caught up in European modernism. Many remained in the United States painting dynamic pictures of city life as well as more traditional landscape subjects. Edward Hopper and George Bellows were well aware of modern developments, yet both painted in a firmly realist idiom. Although both artists were better known for their larger paintings of urban subjects, the works in the exhibition express each artist's pure delight in the landscapes around them. Monhegan Landscape (cat. no. 81), with its shimmering color and sensuous brushwork, reveals Hopper's love of the New England coastline. Bellows heightens the colors and dramatizes the effects of sunlight and shade in Clouds and Meadow (cat. no. 17), a dazzling, theatrical portrayal of nature.
Modern American Art Through 1980
During the 1930s the dominant style of painting in the United States was descriptive realism, usually influenced by some combination of cubism, post-impressionism, and expressionism. The paintings and drawings of Isabel Bishop, Teresa Bernstein, Philip Evergood, Jacob Lawrence, and Jan Matulka fall into this category, as these artists looked to the people, streets, and buildings around them for their subject matter. Another group of artists experimented with abstract painting. Karl Knaths, for example, alternated between descriptive and abstract modes of painting. Knaths studied the writings of Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, and other modern theorists very closely and developed complex theoretical principles to determine color and composition in his art.
During the decades prior to World War II, realism also dominated sculpture, although two artists who reached maturity at this time, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder, worked primarily in an abstract mode. Noguchi was born in the United States and raised in Japan. He studied sculpting in New York City before going to Paris in 1927, where he became an assistant to Constantin Brancusi. Erai Yatcha Hoi (Kintaro) (cat. no. 111), a rare figural work inspired by terra-cotta mortuary figures that Noguchi saw during a trip to Japan, shows his preference for simplified, sophisticated yet primitive forms. Calder, who also went to Paris in the 1920s, studied the abstractions of Piet Mondrian before becoming deeply influenced by the work of Joan Miro and other surrealists who were then in Paris. With extraordinary playfulness and originality, he created sculptures that consisted of small spheres that moved up and down on thin wires. Duchamp dubbed them mobiles after visiting Calder's studio in 1932; Hans Arp called the pieces that did not have movable parts stabiles. From these early experiments Calder moved on to make the free-floating sculptures for which he is famous today.
During the decade of the 1930s, European surrealism appeared in New York City in places such as the Julian Levy Gallery, and among the American artists interested in the movement was Joseph Cornell. In 1931, influenced by Max Ernst, Cornell experimented with collages but soon moved into new territory when he began making boxes filled with evocative ephemera. Cornell was akin to the surrealists in his highly personal explorations of nostalgia and memory, and he formed a lasting friendship with Duchamp. However, he maintained his individuality and never fully joined the surrealists or indeed any other classifiable group of artists.
Two Americans worked in the surrealist idiom and were members of the surrealist group. Kay Sage studied art in Rome in the early 1920s but pursued it seriously only after moving to Paris in 1937. Eclipsed by the reputation of her second husband, Yves Tanguy, she has received relatively little critical attention, although her work has made an important contribution to surrealism. Dorothea Tanning began painting imaginative dreamlike subjects before she was aware of the surrealist movement, but by the mid-1940s she was in the middle of things, showing her work at the Julian Levy Gallery and marrying Max Ernst in 1946. Her work evolved from a tightly drawn descriptive style to a looser, gestural handling of line and volume focusing, as in Fin de Partie (cat. no. 149), on the female body moving in space.
An important link connecting European modernism to the flowering of American art after World War II was Hans Hofmann. Born in Germany, Hofmann lived in Paris from 1903 until the outbreak of World War I, when he went to Munich and set up his own school of art. In 1934 he established the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in New York City. In his art and in his teaching, he brought the cubist investigation of depth and space together with an expressionist gestural style of painting. Primarily concerned with abstract subject matter, he explored the relationship between pictorial depth and expressive gesture. By the end of his career he reached a resolution of both concerns in paintings like Carnival (cat. no. 80), in which he floated smooth, flat rectangles in a space defined by color and roughly brushed in shapes.
Within five years after the end of World War II, a group of artists called abstract expressionists or the New York School, confronted with disillusionment following the devastation of the war, abandoned conventional directions in art, social realism, and pure abstraction and turned their energies to developing a new kind of art that would be more meaningful. With intense personal commitment, they explored the act of painting and painting's formal elements -- color, line, and form -- in their quest for more honest ways to express themselves. Many were attracted to the surrealist tenets and explored techniques of automatic drawing, accident, and free association in their attempts to tap into the creative process.
Although artists of the New York School shared common ideas about the role of the artist in society and about the serious mandate of art itself, there was great stylistic diversity among them. In Summer Collage (cat. no. 109) Robert Motherwell experimented with collage and abstract painted shapes, building upon a cubist foundation yet filling his work with a powerful personal expression. Willem de Kooning, Mark Tobey, and Franz Kline explored the spontaneity and expressive potential of gesture to communicate inner ideas and emotions. David Smith
translated abstract calligraphic strokes from paper into three-dimensional sculpture. James Brooks and Sam Francis explored color relationships, Brooks by means of solid, floating abstract forms, Francis by incorporating drips of color with expressionistic movements of his brush.
Although most critical and popular attention focused on the abstract expressionists, there were those who, working outside the limelight, made an equally important contribution to American art of this period. Joseph Solman and Ralph Rosenborg were members of the Ten, a group of New York City artists who met and exhibited together between 1935 and 1940, and who concentrated on bridging the gap between abstract and representational modes of expressive painting. Will Barnet painted abstract shapes and forms derived from nature in a hard-edged style. In Old Man in the Market (cat. no. 12) he incorporated realist elements into a grid-like structure. Louise Nevelson took up the concept of the grid and created compartmentalized boxes filled with chunks of wood, balusters, and pieces of molding all painted one color, as in Night Image 111 N158 (cat. no. 110), which includes wooden blocks and violin bridges. This characteristic work resonates with symbolic meanings and evocative allusions to sound and memory. Unlike Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois did not develop a unique signature style but allowed her work to be shaped by her expressive needs; her emotional intensity is apparent in drawings such as Cruelty (cat. no. 26). On the West Coast, Morris Graves developed a highly personal symbolic art using tempera, gouache, ink, and wax on thin papers in a technique reminiscent of Asian scroll painting.
The generation of artists who reached maturity during the 1960s and 1970s reacted in a number of ways not only to the painting styles but also to the ideology of abstract expressionism. Larry Rivers, a jazz musician who took classes at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts, bridged a gap between abstract expressionism and traditional realism. As exemplified by Two Figures (cat. no. 125), his central interest remained focused on the figure, structured by firm vigorous drawing, yet fragmented by overlapping layers of transparent paint.
Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, forerunners of the Pop movement, explored the ambiguous relationship between object and representation in art. Turning away from abstraction, both artists incorporated real objects with painted images in their works, choosing subjects from the world of ordinary, everyday materials, such as beer cans, newspapers, and tires. Underwriter (cat. no. 122) is one of Rauschenberg's numerous explorations into the complex and eclectic world of images. Composed of combinations of photographs taken from newspapers and magazines and a host of other materials, his work reflects the random visual "noise" of contemporary life. Less multidirectional, Jasper Johns's work focused on images such as numbers, targets, and flags, challenging notions about the preciousness of art by using art to examine the commonplace. Influenced by Johns, Jim Dine also drew his subjects from common graphic images, as he has done in Meadow Heart #11 (cat. no. 52), and household implements, as in Brush (cat. no. 53), an elegant work depicting an ordinary painter's tool oddly disassociated from its everyday context.
Moving in another direction and pursuing to new extremes some implications of abstraction, Kenneth Noland reduced all of the elements in a painting-color, line, and form-to their most basic components. He started with target and chevron shapes and then simplified further, painting bands of color on a series of long narrow canvases, such as the untitled work of 1969 (cat. no. 112). Jake Berthot and Dorothea Rockburne have pursued similar concerns. Viewing the painting as object, as opposed to a window into another world, these artists concentrated on geometric shapes, color relationships, and the surfaces of their works. In Homage to a Guitar Player (cat. no. 21), Berthot distilled from his meditations on the cubist works of Picasso and Braque what were, for him, the most essential color relationships and form. Rockburne conceived of her work as combinations of units and parts. She created geometrical units and combined them in works such as Arena IV (cat. no. 126), using mathematics as a tool to help guide the composition.
About the author
Nancy Allyn Jarzombek, former managing director and director of research at Vose Galleries of Boston, has written several catalogs featuring American artists. She previously served as curator of painting and sculpture at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Recently she was a contributor to Consuming Views: Art and Tourism in the White Mountains, 1850-1900, published by the New Hampshire Historical Society.
Resource Library editor's note
The above exhibition catalogue text, without illustrations, was reprinted in Resource Library on August 2, 2008, with permission of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University and author Nancy Allyn Jarzombek. The permission was granted to TFAO on July 23, 2008. Ms. Green's essay pertains to Cornell Collects: A Celebration of American Art from the Collections of Alumni and Friends, which was on view at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York August 21 - November 4, 1990.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Liz Emrich, Exhibitions Assistant/Rights and Reproductions
of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, and Stacey
Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.
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