Tag Archives: Thomas Hart Benton

Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945

Whitney Museum of American Art, through Jan 31

Well, a bit behind the times (aren’t we all in veritable lockdown) …

I’ve had finally had a chance to reflect on this extensive spread at the Whitney—which sticks to its theme of influence and confluence vis-à-vis Mexican artists after the revolution and American artists through the Depression era into WWII—led by Los Tres Grandes, Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros.  All three had direct and indirect, personal and professional ties to the US and, in the main, were thus recognized by the Americans included here, several sojourning in Mexico at various points in their careers.

Near the start (main wall off the elevators and to the right, moving towards a central cluster of galleries) the tone is set by several characteristic Rivera paintings featuring Olmec-like soft geometry and folksy subjects mixing ancient, historical, and his own time. Following are other kinds of culturally and geographically specific scenes, painted, photographic, and (in one case) sculptural, by (among others) Frida Kahlo, Alfredo Ramos Martinez, Rufino Tamayo, Tina Modotti, and Mardonio Magana.  Moving into direct juxtapositions of Mexican mural projects and WPA-type projects by Americans, an illuminating installation of mainly studies and disparate panels by Charles White, Hale Woodruff, and Thomas Hart Benton, along with other more and lesser-known practitioners of mural-scale art.  Collectively, a good sense of the kind of imagery that infiltrated the American public square in the period covered is conveyed–namely, a charged Social Realism. Peasant and proletariat protest, pain, injustice, and heroic workers, agricultural and industrial, are featured, gathered in spaces that mash together current, asynchronous, and symbolic political events and gatherings.

The influence of Orozco and Siqueiros, vis-à-vis fiery visual tone and gestural bravura on a formative Jackson Pollock is also given substantial attention, reminding of Pollock’s art journey beyond the hype.      

One pending critical quandary (still thinking): the inclusion of several wall-papered repros of murals that go beyond documentation into a kind of simulacrum. Especially so here with a huge image of Rivera’s famous Controller of the Universe fresco (Bellas Artes, CDMX), the result of a famous controversy over a commission for Rockefeller Center, covered through ephemera here.  This work is crucial to the trajectory of the exhibition and the impulse to give a sense of its scale is understandable.  At the same time, at this moment when online art viewing has been rapidly disintegrating lines between virtual and physical art, an alternative, expanded documentation with additional related original studies might have been another route.  Being very picky, I also felt coverage of Siqueiros’s recently restored Los Angeles mural, Tropical America (1932), a scathing anti-colonialist visual tract centralizing the crucifixion of a Native American that was ultimately covered and hidden for decades, could have been given more context, although its recent recuperation is past the scope of this exhibition. BTW, note the powerful foreshortening, overall, in Siqueiros.     

Mardonio Magana, Motherhood, 1931 (collection: Museo de arte moderno, INBAL, Mexico City; at the Whitney, 10/30/20)
David Siqueiros, Revolutionary March, 1935 (collection Palm Springs Art Museum; at the Whitney, 10/30/20)

Rotating the Collection at the Whitney Museum

The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965; opened June 28; ongoing.

Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s; March 29 – August 28, 2019.

(at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

Five years in, The Whitney has become thoroughly at home in its spacious new digs and primo downtown locale (the right move out from the old guard Upper East Side).  This is the second substantial collection overview-type installation since the new building’s inaugural extravaganza (2015). The rotation and attention to expanded contexts for a few renowned works that have remained on view in shifted juxtapositions is notable.  (I must say, a welcome trend seen in major museums broadly; remember when a small portion of a museum’s holdings remained on view in the same spots seemingly for decades?) The salon-style painting display in a dark blue gallery at the start (facing the 7th floor elevators; above) is effective in setting the mood, scale, and subject range–a mix of urban and rural, portrait, landscape, and genre–in mainstream Depression Era art in America. At the same time, an elite few were busy opening galleries and museums in Manhattan, like the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose “Whitney Museum of American Art” opened at a downtown location in 1931.  GVW was a committed supporter and promoter of living American artists, not to mention an artist herself aware that her larger mission presented conflicts of interest. Unlike her art-philanthropic peers (for the most part), her interest in the production of her time left a strong collective record of the years between the wars on the American scene through a heavy lens of New York.  A lack of wall labels draws visitors close, partly to look for signatures. Works by renowned American Regionalists like George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton are immediately recognizable, partly due to their early and close identification with the Whitney.  There were several women artists on this wall that I did not know, as well as elsewhere throughout; like Madeline Shiff (aka Wiltz), whose lively portrait of her artist-husband painting a landscape in a windowless studio here (Wiltz at Work, 1932) both reinforces and goes towards filling the lacunae of her own career.    

Several mini-show arrangements, according to the museum’s holdings, star with Edward Hopper.  One of the great “poignant clown” depictions of many in modernist paintings features in his early Soir Bleu (1914), a post-Impressionist-like Parisian pub scene and last European nod in his oeuvre.  Across the room and several decades the sublimely distilled ordinary New York air of Early Sunday Morning (1930) beckons.  Nearby are several works by Georgia O’Keeffe, whose aesthetic approach and temperament, via the results, are diametrically opposed.  Likewise, a display of selections from Jacob Lawrence’s War Series (c. 1946-47), which is truly experimental in its washy sepia palette and rhythmic forms without loosing humanistic, topical focus.  A number of sculptural elements from Alexander Calder’s Circus (1926-1931), a Whitney coup, have been re-installed in an isolated darkened niche featuring a documentational film of the artist performing his kinetic ensemble (1961; transferred later to bright video).  That is, cranking, blowing, twisting his miniaturist mixed media props, caricatures, and animals to tumble, race, jump, and dance in ingeniously low-tech machinations.  If art is play for adults (as some psychoanalytical theories suggest) Calder was deep in and highly convincing. 

Other pre-WWII works are grouped stylistically; such as Cubist-informed “Machine Age” cityscapes by the Charles-es, Demuth and Sheeler and art-deco architectural sculpture by John Storrs, and Surrealist-tinged work, which, in the United States, elided in many cases into Social Realism and even Regionalism, whether or not through conscious intent. A remarkable contribution here is a visionary animated film, as far as later video and other digital art goes, by Mary Ellen Bute (Spook Sport, 1939).  Of many additional highlights in the pre-WWII section, you won’t miss a relatively large-scale, quirky painted ode to the end of WWI and her beloved NYC by Florine Stettheimer, with fabric folds added to Lady Liberty; and don’t miss Elizabeth Catlett’s quietly uplifting terracotta-as-bronze Head (1947).

The  Abstract Expressionist section is energized by a boldly splotched Ed Clark canvas and a crusty, monumental relief-painting by Jay DeFeo. Pop Art is dominated by Tom Wesselmann’s ginormous Still Life Number 36 (1964), from his loose kitchen-counter collage-paintings series, which presciently anticipates the Photoshop-based paintings of Jeff Koons and other digital “commodities” artists.  Warhol’s silver-screened Elvis Two Times (1963) remains compelling despite, or perhaps because of, the artist’s continued omnipresence in on the contemporary art scene.  (Younger viewers probably now recognize “a Warhol” more so than his celebrity sitters.)  

The 8th floor show on color as form in painting of the 1960s is a kind of addendum, first and foremost conveying how dominant abstraction had become by then; and also a sort of primer on “post-painterly abstraction” (a la Clement Greenberg) in several inclusions collectively. Kenneth Noland’s dizzying, measured-stripe abstraction at the entrance (New Day,1967) looks thoroughly triumphant.  A now classic stained canvas “bunting” piece by Sam Gilliam stands out against the majority work in geometrically-defined color-blocked experiments, sometimes differentiated only slightly in handling between different artists. A few representational artists, it is proposed, still focused primarily on color in at least some work of this period, as in good examples by Alex Katz, Bob Thompson, Kay Walkingstick, and Emma Amos.  A thoughtful but not too didactic display. 

With this history under your belt, you’re ready to tackle the Biennial on two floors below (through 9/22/19) — if anything is left in the show by the time you get there (see Biennial) !

Andy Warhol, Elvis Two Times, 1963 (installed in the exhibition, The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965 (photo: 7/12/19).
Kenneth Noland, New Day, 1967 , installed in the exhibition, Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s at the Whitney Museum (photo: 7/12/19).

High Season 2014 at the MMA

1. Thoughts on the Metropolitan Museum’s refurbished 5th Ave. plaza (trying to put out of my mind the near-scandalous attachment of the Koch name–as in GOP bros.–to the project): shade (umbrellas, trees), unobtrusive stone seating, pavement: very good. Never did like the fountain, but I’m really not a fountain person in general.  They are often non sequiturs with kitsch effects (watch for Christmas color lighting effects), in terms of awkward integration into architectural contexts in which they are found. So I didn’t like it before.

2. The new Met app that now brings virtual reality into the museum itself, with a guided tour through various galleries: several esteemed pundits have questioned this keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, over-explanatory mediation in such close proximity to actual art itself (beyond before/after/outside), especially given the abundance of information available in several forms throughout the building; and have also noticed glitches, as well as the mundane nature of the supplemental info. provided. Today I re-iterate this concern (see post 9/6), being even more irritated, as it struck me that those big red dots the museum has placed on signs and used as a floor map accompanying the app look like strategically placed, subliminal ads for Target – in fact, the apparent targeted audience / commercial implications are not far off. None of the members of the design-market team noticed the similarity in the logo (or did they)?

3.  Met shows are invariably, overall, pretty great (all depts.), including  “Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Revisited” (opened today); nonetheless, I will start with a quibble. You’ve got this great project—the display of a restored, formally complex, extensive work (1930-31) installed in a replica of the boardroom space at the New School for Social Research for which it was conceived.  However, intruding into the nearly floor-to-ceiling, room-wrapped, lively imagery are a dozen or so knee-high stands with explanations, charts and reproductions of what is in front of you. Yes, the narrative details are obviously crucial to the in-depth nature of the show, but, really, can we not be given a moment to engage directly with the art without “noisy” disruptions? There are other ways this info might be presented.  Nice, though, on the supplemental material provided in adjoining galleries–studies, diagrams, and other Benton works relevant to the project, as well as a modest but swell addendum with examples by other artists offering influences, confluences, and heritors, from a Dutch late Renaissance ditty with swirling, interlocking bodies, to the inevitable early Surrealist-type painting by his famous, unwitting protégé, Pollock.

4. As esoteric as it may sound to many non-specialists, “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age,” chronologically covering the first millennium B.C., is as visually engaging as it is historically interesting. The diversity of materials, techniques and object types included is impressive; metals, stone, ceramic, ivory; engraving, repousse, casting; modeling; all manner and scale of plaque, ornament, adornment, vessel, stele. Overall the extensive display reveals formal and iconographic links across the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean coastline—a loose collection of variously allied city-states—while also clarifying regional stylistic and technical differences and interactions between them through several centuries. Images / subjects are dominated by wide-eyed votives, imaginative zoomorphic hybrids, and muscle-defined strongmen, interspersed with intriguingly naturalistic lions that appear as both victims of kings and shamanistic companions.  The operative compositional trope is hierarchic arrangement; the content, a worldview (at least of the elites) that valorized power through representations of conspicuous violence, wealth, and divine right to rule. Glyphic cuneiform scripts are sprawled across images and objects, large and small, no doubt reinforcing their pictorial propaganda. There’s also a cool wall-sized video of an underwater discovery and retrieval expedition of related antiquities.

5.  Last year the modern/contemporary photography exhibitions at the Met were excellent (“Everyday Epiphanies …,” through 1/14; “Now You See it …,” through 9/14); ditto this Thomas Struth survey. It’s a good chance to consider a manageable selection of the major series in his Bernd-and-Hilla-Becher-mentored oeuvre to the present, contemplate the dynamics of photographic documentation and  artistic sentiment, and see a few of the monumental meta-pictures of viewers among works of art that remain among his most appealingly images vis-a-vis their ambiguous critical perspectives.

6. Dan Graham’s fun mirrored greens on the roof and the refined mixed-media Pre-Raphaelite sampler are still on view (see post 8/24); Lauder’s hyped Cubist collection and the inimitable El Greco coming soon.