Westmoreland's handsome 1930s exhibit plays complement to Frick display

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Intimacy is a quality that characterizes most of the works in "Concerning the 1930s in Art: Paintings from the Schoen Collection," drawing visitors into an engagement that surpasses observation. • We step into a small room with "The Family" of Isaac Soyer's 1938 painting and begin constructing a narrative. Is the young woman, dressed and posed to go out the door, the sole support of what appear to be her parents, seated despondently at a table, her unshaven father presumably unemployed? • We sympathize with a man perusing the sparse want ads of the newspaper spread at his feet as he sits on a curb between the shadowy figures of Joe Jones' "Conversation."

'Concerning the 1930s in Art: Paintings From the Schoen Collection'
  • Where: Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 221 N. Main St., Greensburg.
  • When: Through May 16.
  • Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays.
  • Admission: $5 suggested donation; free, students and children under 12.
  • Also showing: "Ben Schachter: Kosher/Treif and Eruvim."
  • Lectures: 7 p.m. March 25, "The 1930s: A Decade of Challenges," Jason Schoen will share his perspective on collecting American art (free). Noon, April 14, "Hard Times: Reaching Out to Americans in the Great Depression," Pam St. John, director of education, Frick Art & Historical Center (free); 7 p.m. April 22, "When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy," Roger Kennedy, director emeritus, Smithsonian National Museum of American History (free; followed by a book signing).
  • Information: 724-837-1500 or www.wmuseumaa.org.

We mourn "The Death of Ray Goddard" as the farmer's body is carried away from his tipped tractor in the moving work by John Steuart Curry, one of the best known of the American Regionalists.

This handsome exhibition at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art was selected by curator Barbara Jones from the collection of Princeton, N.J.-based Jason Schoen. He has for more than 25 years pursued American art of the 1930s and '40s, and his collection has been exhibited at several southern museums.

This show and the Smithsonian exhibition at The Frick Art & Historical Center richly complement one another, each drawn from a period that has gained unfortunate relevance today. The Westmoreland exhibition encompasses the decade of the 1930s while the Frick's focuses on a single year and project; the former is guided by the philosophy of a 21st century collector and the latter of a Depression-era government agency.

Exemplifying how those visions differ is William Gropper's harrowing "The Last Cow (The Dying Cow)," in which a Dust Bowl farmer tenderly touches the starving animal lying in an expanse of barren dunes. The subject would be out of place in the more optimistic Smithsonian show, although Ms. Jones points out that while it depicts "the tragedy," it also shows "the resolve of that farmer. He's staying on that farm no matter what. His last cow is dying, but he's staying."

If collector Schoen doesn't shy away from imagery of hard truths, there is also room for a nostalgic image of a child running toward the one-room building of Paul Sarrett Sample's "Tardy (Mountain School);" the perhaps allegorical female harvesting wheat before an approaching storm in Peppino Gino Mangravite's "Tomorrow's Bread;" and the humorous tryst in the back seat of Eugenie McEvoy's "Taxi! Taxi!"

The strength of both exhibitions is in the lesser-known or forgotten artists, who widen understanding of the period both culturally and stylistically. Ms. Jones expects that the reputations of a number of such artists will be revived as interest in the period is renewed.

Certainly it's rewarding to discover works by recognized artists, such as Charles Burchfield's neat tool shed with "The Open Door," social activist Ben Shahn's "Unemployed," Doris Emrick Lee's celebratory "Beach Party," and Roy Hilton's contemplative and symbolic "Winter in a Mining Town."

But raw power emanates from Carl Frederick Gaertner's 36- by 49-inch "Night in Pittsburgh" and Mary E. Hutchinson's "Two of Them."

Mr. Gaertner's atmospheric street scene is a feat of light and shadow, nuanced, evocative, a blend of realism and stage set. Children gather under a street light, or buy popcorn from a mobile vendor. Adults talk near a house entry in this blue-collar, probably immigrant, neighborhood.

Ms. Hutchinson's beautifully rendered, compelling young couple are troubled. He stares forward, scowling. She looks toward him, distractedly. An object in the background could be a door. Are they involved in a lover's quarrel, or is something more significant at play given the year, such as the loss of a job with a child on the way. Again the viewer is lured into constructing a story that transcends time.

Helping to transport visitors on opening night were songs of the 1930s, Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1935 fireside chat on the economy, ostensibly emanating from a period radio set at the show's entry. The radio, loaned by Greensburg antique dealer John Mickinak, will continue to "broadcast" FDR fireside chats. Its mural room setting was painted by Seton Hill students Nicole Sebula, Jon Stefaniak and Tia Woller.

Ms. Jones chose 40 paintings by 33 men and seven women artists from across the U.S. who, along with others at the time, worked in their own regions and who, combined, told the country's entire story.

"Though they employed different styles, they had in common that they wanted to forge a new American identity. They thought they were making a difference," she says.

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925. First Published January 31, 2010 5:00 AM


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