Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Museum Hopping in New York, Part 2

Arthur Dove's "Ferry Boat Wreck" (1931) 

"America is Hard to See" at the Whitney Museum of American Art is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit.  The Whitney has taken the opportunity of opening its new (and quite beautiful) venue to scrutinize its collection of 22,000+ objects and to create a show that spans American art from 1910-present.  The 23 "chapters" of the show sprawl over four floors, with each inspired by a work of art that evokes the section's "animating impulse."

The museum offers free guided tours with admission, and I took in two during my visit.  The docents were knowledgeable and approachable, and I found myself desperately wishing that I could be the one guiding visitors through the show. (Perhaps in another lifetime....)  For now, I'll share some of the highlights from the Seventh Floor, which covers the period 1925-1960.

From "Cirque Calder" (1926-1930)
In the late 1920s, New York was the home of mass entertainment, a place to see and be seen.  No work typifies this energy more than Alexander Calder's "The Circus."  In 1925, Calder spent two weeks sketching acts for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.  The circus caught his imagination, and he spent the next five years creating 20 miniature circus acts from wire, wood and other materials.  He took his show on the road to avant-garde Paris and other locales around the world. Calder would entertain his audience by serving as ringmaster.  (Click here to see a video of Cirque Calder.)  The work itself is displayed in a glass case, with visitors becoming part of the spectacle as they peer through the glass at both the art and each other.

Bellows' "Dempsey and Firpo" (1923)

George Bellows' "Dempsey and Firpo" was also found in "The Circus" chapter.  Boxing had only recently been legalized when Bellows captured this image from the four minute fight.  Although Luis Angel Firpo has the clear advantage in this moment, Jack Dempsey prevailed.  The expression "the long count" came from this fight because the referee's extended recitation of one to ten gave Dempsey time to get back up and into the ring.  (Sports fans might be interested in perusing this article from The Atlantic which declares the painting the greatest American sports painting and includes video of the bout.)

Obata's "Mono Crater" (1930)
Our guide encouraged us to think about the sounds of the city as we looked at these works and others featuring dance halls and jazz musicians and poker games.  The mood was quite different in the next room, which was inspired by Grant Wood's "Breaking the Prairie."   A sense of quietude filled the space, even in works like Woods' in which people were tilling the fields.  Perhaps my favorite story relates to the woodblock prints by Chiuro Obata, each of which was made using between 120-205 woodblocks.

Obata was a Japanese-America artist who emigrated to the United States as a teenager.  Despite being firmly entrenched in American life--he was a professor of art at UC-Berkley--Obata and his family were interned during WWII.  He returned to his position at Berkley upon their release.  When the Whitney purchased one print from Obata's Yosemite series, his heirs were so honored by his recognition as an American artist that they donated another 17 works to the Museum.

Lawrence's "Victory" (1947)
I missed the work that provided the name for the "Fighting with All our Might" room, perhaps because I was so taken by the art.  This space deals with the political--from labor unrest to lynchings to bread lines to war.

Having recently experienced Jacob Lawrence's Great Migration series at MOMA, I was thrilled to see ten works from his War Series.  During WWII, Lawrence was an artist in residence with the U.S. Coast Guard.  Unfortunately, the works he created during that time were lost.  In 1946, he received a Guggeheim Fellowship to paint a series based on his memories of his experiences.  He created the paintings in an unusual manner by lying the 14 canvases on the floor and applying a particular color of paint to each in turn.  You can see that, to Lawrence, the United States' victory in the war was not a cause for celebration.

This post barely scratches the surface of the more than 600 works included in "America is Hard to See."  I have one day in New York when we return to Scotland, and a return visit to the Whitney might be in order.  The exhibit runs through September 27.  If you're an art fan and are in the area, run--don't walk--to this show.

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