Coming of Age: American Art 1850s to 1950s

November 30, 2007–February 24, 2008

Beginning this fall, the Meadows Museum is pleased to host an exhibition of 71 paintings and sculptures from the Addison Gallery of American Art on the campus of the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Organized with the American Federation of Arts, Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s will showcase the development of American Art from the Hudson River School through Abstract Expressionism, featuring such emblematic artists as Asher B. Durand, Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Frederic Remington, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder, David Smith, Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella.

Coming of Age follows what Susan Faxon, one of the exhibition’s curators and Associate Director and Curator of Art Before 1950 at the Addison Gallery of American Art, described as the “search for an American expression.” It features a concise selection of works that represent many of this country’s defining artistic movements—from the grand landscapes of the Hudson River School to the haunting realism of Civil War-era genre scenes and finally to the robust Abstract Expressionist works from the first half of the last century. An exhibition of this kind is only possible because of the Addison Gallery’s excellent and comprehensive collection of American art. Opened in 1931, the gallery collected works not only by 19th-century American artists, but also by contemporary American artists over the following decades. William Agee, a curator of the exhibition and Phillips Academy alumnus, noted that by 1952, when he entered the school, the Addison Gallery already occupied a unique position among its contemporary institutions by having in its holdings works by the most cutting-edge of American artists, including Josef Albers and Jackson Pollock. Agee goes on to describe the Addison Gallery as “a place of discovery” for its students, one of whom was Frank Stella, whose 1958 painting East Broadway is featured in this exhibition.

Remarkable for its institutional history and significant educational ties, as well as its geographically focused yet chronologically comprehensive collection, the Addison Gallery bears some significant parallels to the Meadows Museum. With masterpieces of Spanish art just a corridor away, the visitor to Coming of Age will be presented with the rare opportunity to explore the many connections, including close personal and artistic relationships, between Spanish and American artists during the 19th and 20th centuries. Focused programming culminating in an international symposium on February 9, 2008 will seek to investigate these relationships in greater depth, shedding light on the development of art in Spain and the United States, and highlighting the intersections between the two paths of two nations, whose artist were in constant communication.

Relations between Spain and America were not always pleasant during the century on which this exhibition is focused. Indeed, the Spanish-American War, which lasted from April to August 1898, resulted in Spain’s loss, and America’s gain, of the territories of the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. Despite the final eclipse of the empire to a much younger rival, however, artistic ties between the two countries flourished. Evidence of the artistic relationships between Spain and America, in particular in the early 20th century, may be found in the movement of artists across the Atlantic. Spanish artists such as Ignacio Zuloaga and Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida visited the United States and were extremely popular here. Sorolla, who arrived in the United States with his wife and two oldest children in early 1909, came for an exhibition of his work entitled Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida at the Hispanic Society of America. Between February 4 and March 8 of that year, nearly 170,000 people visited the exhibition, at which the artist sold nearly 150 works to his adoring American audience. While in America, Sorolla painted a number of portraits, including one of Juliana Armour Ferguson, a renowned collector, and, most notably perhaps, one of President Howard Taft.

While Spanish artists like Sorolla experienced wild success in America, American artists also did well abroad. Two expatriate American artists, Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, traveled extensively in Europe, primarily in London and Paris but also in Spain. Like Sorolla, Sargent was truly a cosmopolitan painter. Born and raised in Europe by American parents, he first visited his “native” country as an adult at age 20. As the recent “Sargent/Sorolla” exhibition organized by Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza demonstrated, the two artists shared a significant artistic affinity in spite of their differences in birth and education. Indeed, Sargent’s painting Val d’Aosta: A Man Fishing, featured in Coming of Age, is filled with the sun-soaked skin tones and quick, fluid attention to the colorful reflections on water so characteristic of Sorolla’s luministic beach scenes.

Sargent and Sorolla are not the only pair of American and Spanish artists that represent close relationships in technique, subject matter and overall vision. Two other artists represented in Coming of Age and the Meadows Museum’s permanent collection had a close and inspiring relationship: one of the best known and gifted of American sculptors, Alexander Calder, and one of the most important Spanish painters and sculptors of the 20th century, Joan Miró. Indeed, in order to understand the biomorphic shapes of the innovative mobiles Calder created during the 1930s–40s, it is essential to look at the organic forms of Miró’s paintings, which seem to “float” on the canvas as Calder’s forms did in space. The Spanish surrealist’s influence on Calder was at its peak in the 1930s, and can clearly still be seen in his 1942 sculpture Horizontal Spines, featured in Coming of Age. Inspired by Miró’s paintings, perhaps like those in the Meadows Museum’s collection (Queen Louise of Prussia, 1929 and The Circus, 1937), Calder reinvented the vision in three dimensions, making Miró’s implied movement a reality. The elegant and lightweight abstract components bring fluidity and movement to a previously dense, heavy, and pedestal-bound medium. The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC organized a major exhibition featuring these two artists, Calder Miró, in late 2004.

Not only inspiring others, in the mid 20th century Miró was clearly influenced by important trends in American art. Indeed, his later works were often much less concise and constrained, and eventually demonstrated the exaggerated wild brushstrokes and splatter so characteristic of the Abstract Expressionists. Additionally, compare the Abstract Expressionist paintings by Franz Kline (Abstract, 1948) and Jackson Pollock (Phosphorescence, 1947) to Antonio Saura’s 1958 painting Portrait of Mari in the Meadows Collection; the wide black brushstrokes and thick application of paint and abstraction of the human figure compare well to Kline’s composition mentioned above, and clearly demonstrate the significant impact American Abstract Expressionism had on painting in Spain.

The medium of sculpture also finds a parallel between the two collections. David Smith’s Structure of Arches (1939), featured in Coming of Age, is an excellent example of the artist’s great achievement in sculpting steel. By this time Smith had sought inspiration from the European avant-garde and is known to have been particularly inspired by the work of Julio González, who he described as “the origin of his technical liberation.” González’s work is represented in the Meadows collection by three recently acquired drawings. These drawings, one of which is a study for two of the artist’s most important sculptures, Monsieur Cactus (Homme Cactus I) (1939) and Madame Cactus (Homme Cactus II) (c. 1939-1940), were created around the same time as Smith’s Structure of Arches and demonstrate well a shared aesthetic for the harmonious combination of sharp geometric angles and sweeping organic curves, as well as the concept of drawing in space. The Meadows Museum includes in its holdings a much later, monumental piece by Smith: his 1962 work Cubi VIII. This more strictly geometric work makes for an interesting contrast when compared to the González-inspired sweeping forms of Structure of Arches.

In summary, Coming of Age is not only a major survey exploring this important period in the development of the identity of American art, but also an opportunity to examine the Meadows Museum’s collection within the wider context of modern art in America. Special programming, including lecture series and an international symposium, will address the many connections between American art created from the 1850s to 1950s and the Meadows Museum’s permanent collection of Spanish art and modern sculpture. Following its stay at the Meadows Museum, its only venue west of the Mississippi, Coming of Age travels to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. An accompanying catalogue published by the American Federation of Arts in association with Yale University Press, featuring essays by the curators, is a historic opportunity for scholars of American art to interpret the Addison’s rich collection in depth.

This exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts, New York, and the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, and is made possible, in part, by The Crosby Kemper Foundation and by Frank B. Bennett and William D. Cohan, with additional support from the Philip and Janice Levin Foundation Fund for Collection-Based Exhibitions at the American Federation of Arts. A gift from The Meadows Foundation has made it possible to bring this exhibition to the Meadows Museum.

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Carrie Sanger
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